In February and March an Antarctic ice shelf fell apart, leaving bobbing evidence of the end of its shelf life. The disintegrated Larsen B ice shelf covered approximately 1,250 square miles, which, numerous media outlets noted, was about the size of Rhode Island. Some scientists who study our planet, which is about the size of Venus, immediately blamed global warming. Whether the cause was indeed widespread warming or merely a more geographically isolated heat-up will no doubt be a subject of discussion elsewhere. And despite the fact that the Larsen B shelf weighed about 720 billion tons, which is equivalent to the 720 billion cigarettes that the U.S. produced in 2000 if each cigarette weighed one ton, I've been thinking about less weighty stuff: namely, the practice of describing the sizes of things in terms of other things.
My interest in this obscure area of journalism began a few years ago, when I was reading an article about the environmental impact of golf courses. Par for the discourse, the writer observed that all the world's golf courses combined would cover an area one third the size of Belgium. He then committed what I have since thought of as the Belgian waffle: he pointed out that Belgium was about the size of Maryland. Why bother with the Belgian middleman? I wondered. Why not just say that the world's golf courses cover one third the area of Maryland? And if Maryland's surface area is about 10,461 square miles, one third of which is 3,487 square miles, one could just as easily say that the world's golf courses cover an area about one half the size of Hawaii (6,473 square miles). Which makes more sense anyway, because Hawaii eventually will be completely covered with golf courses.