How Big Is It?

If our staff is a representative sample, the most fun and surprising feature on the new Coal Diver website is the How Big Is It? feature. The idea came from our own experience with taking photos and video footage of strip mines and mining equipment, then seeing them back in the office and showing them to other people. Looking at a dragline in a photo is nothing like the experience of standing on the ground near one, staring up (and up) until the roof of your mouth gets sunburned.

A Falkirk Mines dragline at work in northwestern North Dakota.

How in the world, we wondered, can we help people who have never stood where we’ve stood understand the scale of these things? The mines themselves are another story. Many people have seen rock quarries or hard rock mining operations, and they’re often very large. But the size of the Powder River Basin mines, for example, challenges human understanding. They’re visible from space. Some people photograph them with remarkable detail at 30,000 feet on cross country flights.

It turns out that representing large scale phenomena in ways that people can understand intuitively is a common challenge. The media is always trying to give us a handle on size in familiar ways: “10 football fields,” that sort of thing. When we put this question to our intrepid software designer, he had some great ideas (and he keeps coming up with more). The first few are already on the website.

The first involves side by side photos of a Prius and one of the oversized dumptrucks used to haul coal that’s been separated from an underground vein by explosives and a dragline bigger than my office building. They start out roughly the same size, and the challenge is to make the Prius small enough that its proportion is correct next to the dumptruck. That Prius looks pretty teeny by the time you get done.

The second challenge involves one of the largest mines outlined on a map. You input any address you want and the outline of the mine is superimposed on the place you chose. Your challenge is to make the outline of the mine large enough to cover as much land as it covers at its actual site. We tried this once in front of an audience using the address of the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The mine outline superimposed on New York City and North Jersey is below. This image drew gasps. What would you see if you entered your own address?

The outline of Black Thunder Mine (WY) superimposed on a map of New York City

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