The Earth�s Half Empty Oil Tank
By John Gilkison
The Simons article on Peak Oil saying we had crossed the peak on December 16, 2005 set off a train of ideas which I thought deserved a blog. Simmons quotes a little over 2 trillion barrels as the total amount of oil available to mankind and said we had consumed just a little over one trillion barrels of oil by the end of 2005.
Crossing the threshold of Peak Oil is a little analogous to crossing the event horizon of a Black Hole in space, in that there is nothing to tell you that you have done it. Once you have crossed the invisible line it is however a irrevokable event. More to the point with numbers like this, it is often hard to get a good visual appreciation of just how much oil we are talking about. While a couple trillion barrels of oil may seem like a lot of oil, (and it is for any of us personally) just how big is it as compared to the Earth lets say?
I will leave it up to the reader to check my methods, I will just tell you what I did. A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, a US Gallon has a volume of 231 cubic inches. So a barrel of oil constitutes roughly 9,702 cubic inches, or 5.6145 cubic feet, if you divide by 1,728. This last figure in cubic feet must be multiplied by 2 trillion barrels to yield our total volume.
The cubic foot is a little unwieldy for our purposes, so converted this to cubic miles, and ended up with a little over 76 cubic miles of oil. Still without a visual clue, I organized this rather large amorphous concept, into a sphere. The formula for figuring the volume of a sphere is 4/3 times pi cubed. This resulted in a sphere with a radius of 2.63 miles, or a diameter of 5.26 miles.
Now we are getting somewhere, just imagine a large spherical oil tank almost as tall as the tallest mountain on Earth and you got it. As a people living on a finite planet, we have consumed since the year 1859 half of the oil in this tank.
How big is this oil tank as compared to the Earth visually? Astronomers like to model distances, so lets do a little astronomical modeling. Lets make one millimeter equal one mile, giving us a tiny sphere five and one quarter millimeters in diameter. This is about the size of a heathy pea, if you want a good green visual. At this scale the 7,960 mile diameter of the earth ends up being a scale Earth a little over twenty six feet across.
Suddenly our pea size oil tank for all of humanity doesn’t look so large after all. In fact in comparison to the Earth it appears frighteningly small. We are talking about a primary resource humanity has been relying upon to power most of it transportation needs, and to shape the modern world. This is the starter battery Buckminister Fuller spoke of, that was only sufficient to get humanity started.
As small as this is as compared to the Earth, a Asteroid this size striking the Earth at over twenty four thousand miles per hour would wipe out life on this planet as we know it. It would be the Doomsday Asteroid the science shows on television refer to. It would be traveling only a little over it’s own diameter every second. It would pass through our atmosphere in around two seconds, and convert most of it’s mass to energy in a little more then one second. This energy would be far greater then the energy content of all the nuclear bombs in all the military arsenals on earth.
Burning even this pittance of stored fossil carbon plus some coal so far, has warmed the Earth over one degree Fahrenheit of Global Warming, and now it looks like we have reached tipping points, that are causing our climate change to accelerate faster the even the scientist had predicted. Considering we live on a syntropic energy importing loci called the Earth and that we are bathed in a daily energy income that dwarfs the energy content of this pea sized oil tank of the Earth, you would think it was time for humanity to move on to utilizing the so called renewable energy resources that really are inexhaustible, solar, wind, tidal, water.
One final analogy on apparent sizes for the amateur astronomers out there in evworld.. Both the Sun and the Moon have an apparent angular size of approximately one half of a degree (or thirty minutes of arc) in our skies. By a wonderful happenstance the Moon which is about four hundred times smaller then the Sun, is also four hundred times closer, so we get treated to total eclipses of the Sun when the Moon is New and at a nodal point.
Our oil tank sphere (painted white of course) would appear to subtend one half a degree in our skies also, if it were in a orbit 578 miles high above the Earth. Our new orbiting artificial Moon would be interestingly enough 413 times closer then the real Moon. Now wouldn’t that be a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, figuratively speaking of course! Or am I?