Saturday, December 26, 2015

Volume of Waste in the Mine Spill (in Brazil) Equivalent to 78 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spills

Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece on a recent 'environmental disaster' in Brazil that has been unfolding over the last month.  The title of the article was "As Brazil Mine Spill Reaches Ocean, Its Catastrophic Extent Becomes Clear."  I was reading the article in a hurry and did not really get a chance to digest the entire piece.  What I mean is -- upon reading the article a second time through, I found myself astounded.  In between the first and the second reading, I realized that the reported values fit perfectly into the theme of blog posts on this site.

As I mentioned above, between the two readings a couple of events transpired.  I think honesty is a good practice -- to admit that I am not perfect.  After I read the article the first time in a rush, I e-mailed the author and asked him for more information.  Specifically, the first paragraph states the overall 'eye-catching' general consequences of the disaster:

Since millions of gallons of mining waste burst from an inland iron ore mine a month ago, 300 miles of the Rio Doce stretching to the Atlantic Ocean has turned a Martian shade of bright orange, and the deadly consequences for residents and wildlife are just beginning to emerge.

I posted a question on the author's twitter account to inquire into a more definitive quantity of waste water that was actually spilled in the disaster.  He responded by informing me that a more accurate estimate of the total volume was listed in the article.  I quickly read the article for the second time, looking for a volume listed.  This is what I found:

The dam near the inland city of Mariana that broke on Nov. 5 is operated by Samarco, a mining company owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale and Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton.
When the barrier burst, for unknown reasons, more than 60 million cubic meters of waste began flooding nearby communities and wound up in the Rio Doce.

Without talking about the long-term environmental effects (which will be covered in a later post), I wanted to focus on the magnitude of waste released from the damaged dam.  After exchanging correspondence with the author, I was looking for a reported/stated value of waste water expressed in 'units' of 'gallons' rather than 'cubic meters.'

Whenever you express a value, the importance of keeping uniformity (in reporting units of measurement) cannot be understated.  This is to avoid confusion.  In the situation described above, I was expecting to find a total volume of the mine spill expressed in units of 'gallons' rather than 'cubic meters.'  Regardless, the value was expected to be large based on the picture in the article -- which are shown below:

Source: LA Times -- Brazil's Rio Doce River

My curiosity started to run wild.  I could not get my head around the reported value of 60 million cubic meters.  What was the equivalent volume (60 million cubic meters) expressed in gallons?  Therefore, I decided to calculate the value in gallons using dimensional analysis.  Below is the the conversion based on the conversion factor of cubic meters to gallons (1 cubic meter = 264.172 gallons).

In the first line, the value of 60 million cubic meters is expressed in scientific notation.  The use of scientific notation allows large numbers -- extremely large numbers -- to be expressed more easily.  Regardless of notation, the number of gallons is HUGE.  The extent of the disaster is INSANE.  After I saw the number of gallons, I immediately started wondering how the number (15.9 billion gallons) compares to various volumes.  What volume would be sufficient to compare to the present 'man-made' disaster?

How many 'Deepwater Horizon Oil Spills' would compare to Brazil's mine spill?

Since the topic was a man-made environmental disaster, I immediately thought of the tragic 'Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill' back in 2010.    The oil flowed out of the well for 87 days and amounted to a total of around 210 million gallons.  That is why I was extremely surprised by the reported volume in the 'Times' article about the Mine Spill in Brazil.  I decided to compare the two volumes.  

Specifically, I wanted to know how many oil spills would be equivalent to 15.9 billion gallons of iron-ore waste.  First, I converted the value of the spill into scientific notation.  Then I divided the two volumes to obtain the number of equivalent oil spills.  Below are the results:

Wow!  Unbelievable.  I am blown away.  I cannot believe that the equivalent volume of the Mine Spill is comparable to 78 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spills.  That is a LARGE amount of waste water (iron-ore waste).  The volume was so large that I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the magnitude of the volume.  

As a result, I had to find another image to assist my inability to wrap my head around the value.  I found a photo from an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Samarco May Not Shield BHP, Vale From Brazil Dam-Breach Repercussions."

The volume of iron-ore waste started to make sense after viewing the above photo.  Based on the photo above, that large volume would have destroyed a large area of land -- such as that above.  As the picture portrays, the water must have thrashed the town houses, cars, and forestry in the path as the potential energy of the stored water (in the dam) rushed out.  Again, that damage must have been due to a large amount of water -- like 15.9 billion gallons.  WOW.

Still left rather unsatisfied.  I am having trouble visualizing 78 'Deepwater Horizon Oil Spills.'  In light of this feeling, I decided to compare the value of 15.9 billion gallons to a couple other volumes: 1) the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and 2) the world's largest pool.  These two volumes are extraordinary feats of construction.  Further, the two volumes have served me well in past posts using dimensional analysis.

To start with the Mercedez-Benz Superdome in Louisianna.  The volume reported on the 'Wikipedia' site of the interior of the Superdome is believed to be around 3,500,000 cubic meters.  Below is a picture of the Superdome:

How many of these Super structures will be required to hold a volume of 15.9 billion gallons?  Below are the results:

Again, the number is large -- HUGE -- beyond comprehension.  The last remaining super structure that is appropriate to compare such a volume is the World's Largest Pool.  The World's Largest Pool is located in Chile and is shown below:

This amazing swimming pool holds an astounding 60 million gallons of water.  That is enormous.  Although, based on the mentioned volumes above, the volume of the World's Largest Swimming pool is starting to look rather small.  To be complete, the calculation was carried out.  Here are the results:

Oh my goodness, 265 swimming pools would be required to hold 15.9 billion gallons of water.  This should be too surprising.  Imagine what your guess would have been at the beginning of the blog post after hearing the initial value that was reported of 60 million cubic meters?  Would your guess have been larger, smaller, or equivalent to the calculated value?


As I mentioned in the introductory blog post for this website, my intention was to demystify numbers that were reported in the popular news.  Further, to give the reader or you a better understanding how how a scientist thinks.  These objects, structures, or volumes were what came to mind while reading the above articles.  

Does that last sentence sound crazy?

If so, relax, and do not stress yourself out.  The world is full of diverse people.  I might not think like you.  Furthermore,  what questions arise in my mind might be completely different than those that arise in yours -- even after reading the same article.

Who cares about the value reported?

That is another story completely (and another blog post).  We might have different interests, concerns, questions when reading content in the popular news.  What unites us in this situation is that we both live on the planet Earth.  If these tragic accidents keep occurring, the toll down the line (in years to come) could be deadly to everyone (not just the Brazilians).

The first step toward being concerned about possible issues (some of which I will bring up in the 'follow up' post on this disaster) is the understanding of the magnitude of the problem.  As I mentioned, the first time that I read through the article, I missed the HUGE magnitude of the disaster (volume of waste) due to different units.  This shows how narrow-minded I was -- I am looking for gallons.   I should have slowed down and read the article more carefully the first time around.  How often do you have the same happen to you?  Reading too quickly to miss the content?  These are questions that each of us need to answer based on our own actions.

I hope that the disaster down in Brazil has been brought into a different light for you after reading this post.  Have a great day!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Welcome to "Mike Thinks" blog post!!!


Welcome to my blog site -- "Mike Thinks"!!  Right about now, you are probably wondering what this blog site is all about?  Well, I have been writing on another site -- -- for a couple of years.  The site is currently down at the moment.

Hopefully, within a short amount of time, the site should be restored and the content will be available to read.  If not, I will move the content over to another site (bear with me) and provide links to earlier posts (via a PDF) link.

Carrying on the tradition/style from that site, I will be writing about various articles that I find in the popular news.  Specifically, I find that there is a disparity between 'Facts & Figures' that are cited in news articles and an understanding of the true magnitude of their stated value.  People are typically unaware of the magnitude of a reported value in the news.

What do I mean by the 'magnitude of a stated value'?

For example, take the volume of oil reported during the accident of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989 -- when the ship struck a reef in Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef off the coast of Alaska.  If I were to look for that value on the site 'Wikipedia,' here is what I would find:

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William SoundAlaska, on March 24, 1989, when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound forLong Beach, California, struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef at 12:04 am[1][2] local time and spilled 11 to 38 million US gallons (260,000 to 900,000 bbl; 42,000 to 144,000 m3) of crude oil[3][4] over the next few days. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters.[5]

The range is between 11 to 38 million gallons.  I wrote a blog post (which at the moment is inaccessible) about using 'dimensional analysis' to visualize the volume of the oil spill.  Reading the number does no justice to the actual magnitude of the volume.  Here is why.

If I were to use a number within the range (11-38 million) to visualize the volume, what volume could I use that would be accessible to a wide audience?  How about using a volume that most of us can visualize in our heads -- say -- an Olympic size pool?

Here is a picture of an Olympic size pool from the 'Wikipedia' page shown below:

Source: 'Wikipedia' -- Aquatic Palace, Baku

The volume listed on the 'Wikipedia' page for an Olympic size pool is approximately 660,000 gallons of water.  Wow.  Quite a bit -- right?

Next, I could calculate the number of Oympic size pools that could be filled with a value, say 20 million gallons of water, to compare to the volume of the oil spill on the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.  Shown below is the calculation of the number of Olympic size pools which could be filled using a volume of 20 million gallons.  The calculation is shown in the following manner using dimensional analysis:

The calculation is an image.  That is the reason for the different font.  The calculation above is a great example of using dimensional analysis to visualize the magnitude of a stated or reported value in the news or on a website.

After looking at the value a few times, one gets the idea (or at least I did) that the oil spill was a great disaster back in 1989.  The volume of 30 Olympic size pools is no trivial volume.  Further, grasping the damage to the environment would not be too far fetched since the volume is enormous. 

In the 'Wikipedia' excerpt above, the last sentence states that "... It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters."  That would be true if the recent (less than a decade old) "Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill" off of the gulf coast of Mexico had not occurred.  The estimated oil spilled in that disaster in 2010 was believed to be around 210 million gallons of oil. WOW.  Unbelievable.  

Without any further complicated calculations, the amount of Olympic size pools that would be filled with the volume of 210 million gallons could be determined quite easily.  I will post the original dimensional analysis of those calculations in the near future.

The point of all these calculations and blog posts are:

1) Demystify the magnitude of reported/stated values in the popular news.

2) Demystify the thought processes of a scientist (me).

3) Communicate science to a wide audience.

At first sight, these objectives might seem pompous.  Not the case.  I am trying to let the reader (you) into the thought process behind me (a chemist).  Whenever people hear that I have a degree in science, a common response is: "... I like chemistry, but I hate math, that is why I switched majors."

We are living in a time when an understanding of science is more critical than ever.

Why is understanding science critical?  

Without going into much detail, the technologies emerging today require a greater understanding of science.  Furthermore, the issues that our society (and world at large) require a basic understanding of science.  Science should not be feared.  That is not to say that there is no work required to understand science.  Any job or skill set requires a certain amount of labor (on each of our parts) to understand.  Science is not immune to this labor either.

How does a person start learning science?

A traditional method is through the University setting.  Or self-teaching is another route.  Learning science should be fun.  Regardless, of the methodology.  Even if a person does not plan to work in the field of science, each of us should have the basic knowledge of science to form opinions, influence policy decisions on various levels within our society (community, state, federal, world).

With a little bit of work (like the calculation above), we can all enjoy science.  Furthermore, our lives will be more enriched with a better grasp of how to handle or visualize the magnitudes of reported/stated values in the news/journals.

I look forward to learning about numbers and facts reported in the news with you in the future.  Stay tuned and have a wonderful day!