Tuesday, 3 February 2009

What is 385 parts per million by volume?

Amid all the hyperbole and guff surrounding carbon dioxide one fact I have never been able to get my head around is how much of the stuff hovers around and above us. It seems to be asserted regularly by people who claim to know about these things that current levels in the atmosphere are something like 385 parts per million by volume compared to about 280 parts per million a hundred and more years ago. As I understand it, this means that for every million cubic centimetres of atmosphere, 385 cubic centimetres will be carbon dioxide and the rest will be other stuff.

My understanding might well be flawed because I have read the volume described as 385 parts per million after removal of water vapour (here). This suggests to my layman's brain that the actual volume of carbon dioxide compared to all other things might be a lot less than 385 parts per million for the simple reason that every million cubic centimetres of air will contain some water vapour as well as carbon dioxide and other gases. But let's call it 385 parts per million and leave water vapour to one side.

We read about so many billions of tons of carbon dioxide being emitted each year by human activity and the quantity involved seems substantial. We might have some idea what a ton of coal or compost or sand looks like and we can readily imagine that a billion tons is enormous. It becomes easy to persuade people it is a harmful activity when you talk of such vast weights. Although we cannot picture it directly, we know that one ton is big so a billion tons must be huge. Yet when it comes to explaining the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the measurement changes from weight to density. Perhaps references to weight are used because it is easier to grasp concepts of weight than density, but we can be sure than weight is not of itself relevant because the doomsday predictions rely on certain densities of carbon dioxide and other gases being present in the atmosphere regardless of what they weigh. And therein lies my difficulty. I have been trying to understand what 385 parts per million means.

In a country where we like to measure height in Nelson's Columns, length in London buses, large land areas in Waleses or Belgiums and weight in elephants, it is not easy to envisage a million anythings let alone isolate 385 of them and see how they compare to the whole. More difficult still is to envisage comparative volumes. So I thought I'd see if I could find some comparators that actually make sense to me.

I started with the kitchen at FatBigot Towers as my basis for measurement. The kitchen is about twenty two feet by fourteen, and eleven high. I wrapped a cold towel round my head and converted these sound British measurements into flimsy foreign metric equivalents. I came up with a figure of about 91.5 million cubic centimetres. It seems an awful lot just for a kitchen, so I double checked:- 660 cm long by 420 cm wide = 277,200 square centimetres of floor area; volume of a room is floor area x height, so 277,200 x 330 gives the volume in cubic centimetres and I reckon it's 91,476,000.

It just goes to show, doesn't it, how very misleading large numbers can be? It's a decent sized room but it's just a room and now I'm telling myself it can be measured at nearly 91.5 million units. Mind boggling.

For every million units, 385 are carbon dioxide; so that's 385 x 91.476 = 35,218.26 cubic centimetres of my kitchen represents carbon dioxide and 91,440,782 are other stuff. It's hardly made a dent in the total. But the numbers are still just a blur on the page, what does 35,218.26 cubic centimetres actually mean? It just so happens that it means the washing machine. I know how insignificant the volume of my washing machine is to my kitchen, but you don't, so I turned to something less personal. What about booze? Yes, I thought, all sensible people know booze, that's a good one to use.

A standard bottle of wine is 75 centilitres 385 millionths of that is 0.028 centilitres or 0.28 millilitres; a level teaspoon is about 5 millilitres. 0.28 millilitres out of a bottle of fine Rioja is about one drop.

A barrel of beer contains 36 gallons, that is 288 pints or 5,760 fluid ounces. 385 millionths of the volume of a barrel of beer is just over two fluid ounces, equivalent to roughly half the foaming head on top of one pint out of the whole barrel.

These are quite extraordinarily small amounts. Do they seem any larger by looking at them two-dimensionally? A piece of A4 paper, just like those we all have in our printers, measures 21 cm x 29.5cm. Print a capital letter O in 14 point type on a piece of A4 and (if my calculations are correct) the area enclosed is about 385 millionths of the page. Colour it in to see the full effect. It really is a tiny proportion of the page.

None of this proves anything about the ability of a small increase in this tiny amount of gas to dominate the whole of the earth's climate, but it shows what an extraordinary proposition the AGW Armageddon theory is.

Makes you think, doesn't it?


Anonymous said...

A good way to think of 385 ppm is around 6 minutes 40 secs from an 11 and a half days.

Engineerus Lex said...

Greetings, Mr. FatBigot! Love your blog...and looking forward to reading much more if it. I found it from a link on WattsUpWithThat.

Perhaps you would be interested in one of my blogs, at energyguysmusings.blogspot.com.

Best to you, in these cold days in the UK!

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

TheFatBigot said...

Nice point Mr Anonymous, and greetings Mr Lex. As Jim Reeves used to say - Welcome to my World.

beadlizard said...

Your one drop of Rioja and coloring in the letter O are wonderful comparisons. I've enjoyed your comments over at WUWT and will definitely stop by here often to read your prose. Thanks! --Sylvia

TheFatBigot said...

Thank you for your kind words, Mrs Lizard, it's lovely to have you here.

Anonymous said...


For comparison, try similar calculations with the toxic doses of cyanide or pollonium-210.

You'll find those numbers are even smaller, so presumably that just goes to show what an extraordinary proposition the theory that those things can kill you is.

You might also ponder this graphic, which illustrates how much water and air there is relative to the whole earth. Look how little there is. Isn't it extraordinary therefore to think that water and air are important?

Anonymous said...

It's also important to remember, that no matter how small a portion 385ppm actually is, and notwithstanding anything the Goracle might say, Carbon Dioxide is not harmful or a pollutant, but is actually essential to all life.

Anonymous said...

"Carbon Dioxide is not harmful or a pollutant, but is actually essential to all life."

Water and excretion are also essential to all life.

Therefore I assume if I pipe gallons of water into your living room and put a turd in your sandwich you won't object.

Remember, they're not harmful or pollutants, but actually essential to all life.

Ayrdale said...

FB just found you after seeing your very lucid post re flatulence and soyabeans at WattsupWithThat.

Your dissertation on the size of your kitchen has earned a very honourable position at my blog.

Hope you don't mind.

Roger Sowell said...

I found that 385 ppm is the same as 2 feet compared to one mile. Or, for a standard quarter-mile track such as high schools had in my youth, six inches, the length of an older child's shoe.

Love your blog, Mr. FB.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

TheFatBigot said...

Two feet to a mile, that's a very good one Mr Lex-Sowell, thank you.

And thank you for your kind words.

I wish you well in the task of staying sane amid your State's increasing slavery to green extremism.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. FB,

Re: California's increasing slavery to green extremism. Well-put, sir, and quite a task we have. This will be quite an opportunity to witness a citizenry revolt, complete with torches and pitchforks. If the sunspot correlation is correct, and the global freezing begins soon, the California legislature will be exposed for the idiots they all are.

It appears that we all do indeed live in interesting times.


Roger E. Sowell

Anonymous said...

The 35,218.26 cc is of course about 35 litres.
With regards to the effect this volume of CO2 can have remember that we are talking about its effectiveness at blocking IR radiation, so you would be better of thinking of what effect you could get out of splashing around 35 litres of paint.

Andrew W

Anonymous said...

A better idea (well, I think so) a good size private swimming pool contains around 40,000 litres, so sneak over to a neighbours pool and chuck 15 litres of a strong dye in it and see if they notice, you could do it with your own pool, if you're confident that 385 ppm isn't much...

Regards, Andrew W

Ayrdale said...

FB, keep an eye on the anti-green backlash re the vicorian fires. See the Sydney Morning Herald...

...So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies....


Anonymous said...

The problem with using analogies like throwing dye in a swimming pool is that that is a stable system that behaves linearly - that is, two buckets of dye will have twice the effect of one. Supposedly the effect of CO2 on the atmosphere is neither stable nor linear - the first extra 50ppm would have a very small effect, the next 25 also, but the 50 after *that* would cause a step change. A better analogy might be to compare to the engine in your car. If you put it in fourth gear, you have to be very careful pulling off, as you're likely to stall if you press the accelerator just a teensy bit too hard, but then suddenly, once you've got to a certain speed, pressing the accelerator just a teensy bit more gives a wonderful surge of power.