jump to navigation

750 million square kilometers August 31, 2008

Posted by dorigo in internet, news, science.

The figure above is the area of Amazon forest which has been destroyed during the last thirty years, according to this article I just read on the web site of Il Corriere della Sera, the best-selling newspaper in Italy:

“Negli ultimi trent’anni, in Amazzonia, sono stati rasi al suolo per sempre 750 milioni di chilometri quadrati di foresta, un’area pari a due volte e mezzo quella dell’Italia.”

(During the last thirty years, in Amazonia, 750 million square kilometers of forest has been destroyed, an area equal to two and a half times that of Italy.)

Seven hundred and fifty million square kilometers. Little less than twice the area of the whole planet. I wonder how the reporter came out with this number. Did he multiply the number of years by the area destroyed per year, dropping in a factor of a thousand ? I do not even want to know.

I cannot express my depression for the illiteracy to math -and in general to science- which I see growing a bit everywhere. A mistake of three orders of magnitude is not unheard of, but the fact that it happens in a major newspaper, and is not taken off quickly from its web site, is really something to ponder on. There would be books to write about the topic, but I will observe a minute of silence instead.



1. Nicola - September 1, 2008

In many astrophysical studies there’s the general rule “1 = 10”
Reporters have just extended it in wider range: 1 = 1000 🙂

Reporter’s mistakes apart,
don’t forget that deforestation can change the albedo of the Earth, causing a negative change of the global temperature.
Deforestation is the best way to prevent global warning!
Deforestation kicks ass!

2. Markk - September 1, 2008

You said “I don’t want to know” but it would be interesting to see where this came from. It obviously isn’t just a meters – kilometers mistake. It also says “twice the area of Italy”, and I can’t figure out how it relates. Where was the editor on this? Its internally inconsistent even.

3. Alejandro Rivero - September 1, 2008

Lets asume that our planet has a flat metric. I know this, because the three angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees, do they? Also, lets asume that the lenght of the equator is known, 40000 kilometers.

It could be the shape of a torus, so that its area is 40000×40000=1600 million square kilometers.

Or you can be on the belief it is the lateral surface of a “square” cylinder with a circle of 40000 kilometers and a height, equal to its width, of 40000/pi=12 732, so about 509 million square kilometers.

Or perhaps a bi-cone inside the cylinder. That should be, hmm, 360 million square kilometers.

The wikipedia says 510,072,000 km. I conclude Earth is a cylinder. In fact I demand a cylinder with the shape of the earth to be engraved in my burial site.

4. matt harbowy - September 1, 2008

I’ve often seen the abbreviation “M” for thousand (from the roman numeral) used, particularly in publishing, marketing and various non-scientific contexts. When you get used to it (especially since that’s the international standard) as an abbreviation for a million (from mega, the SI prefix), it can be the source of lots of confusion. It’s not likely the source of the gaffe, but it would possibly explain it.

You should at lease give them credit for comparing it to a known, fixed quantity, which at least (like including a meter stick in a photograph) provides you a scientific means to assess scale, and makes you realise quickly that there is probably a factor-of-a-thousand error involved.

5. mfrasca - September 1, 2008

After “neuron stars” and “criogenetics” (read yesterday on Corriere della Sera). Why to be surprised? The worst is that I do not think that just journalists of Corriere are illiterate.


6. Per - September 1, 2008

This is not math, this is plain common sense. Maybe I can guess who owns the news paper? 🙂

7. dorigo - September 1, 2008

Hi all,

Markk, the surface of Italy is a number reporters do have at their fingertips, it is 300,000 square kilometers. That, in some way, mitigates the mistake.

Alejandro, I will try to remember your demand 😉

Matt, in fact that is probably the mistake: the number might have been collected from a foreign source using the M convention, and the italian reporter did not even think at what the hell he was writing.

Marco, that’s true – the trend is global. That is what makes it all the more depressing.

Hmmm Per, the owner of the newspaper talks to the director, which dictates the line of the newspaper. I doubt it requires reporters to fall in a mistake or two weekly.


8. More math illiteracy « A Quantum Diaries Survivor - September 1, 2008

[…] 2008 Posted by dorigo in internet, news, physics, science. Tags: black holes, LHC trackback In my previous post I complained about the utter inability of many italian reporters to pay attention to numerical […]

9. Ed Darrell - September 1, 2008

So what the heck is the true total?

10. dorigo - September 1, 2008

I think it is 750,000 square kilometers in 30 years Ed. That is about 25,000 square km a year, which is 10,000 square miles per year,
or a square of 100 miles on a side.


11. Luboš Motl - September 2, 2008

Dear Tommaso, your 25,000 sq.km estimate per year seems great, see e.g.


Between Aug 2003 and Aug 2004, it was 26.130 sq. km, for example.

By saying “2.5 times Italy”, he probably meant the Italy that will be left after the 99.9% of its present exaggerated territory is returned to the Czech Republic.


12. dorigo - September 2, 2008

It might as well be that the datum you quote was the one which caused the extrapolation, Lubos. As for your other remark, we’ll all be part of a big state one day. And worry not, we’ll keep your language as a dialect to preserve, backed up in a few DVD somewhere.


13. green tea - December 29, 2008

The problem may due to local English confused problem. (Confused English with mother-tongue language)

Take an example, in Chinese numeric unit system, 1 qian = 1 thousand, 1 wan = 10 thousand, but the next unit is 1 yi = 100 million. Many chinese people (even for higher educated) wrongly write 100 million as 1 billion, and even may write 3500 thousand as 350 million. These are very common “careless” problem for Chinese.

Sorry comments are closed for this entry

%d bloggers like this: