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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 05/ 1/2009

Weather Trivia: Think Trillions, Not Billions

By Steve Tracton

* Full Forecast: T-Storms Today? | NatCast | Capitol Sunrise Photos *

"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," the late Senator Everett Dirksen is supposed to have said in the early 1960s. That was then. Now, in the context of today's federal budget, deficits and stimulus programs, trillion (a 1 followed by 12 zeros) is the new billion.

Did you know a pile of one trillion one dollar bills would reach to about 1/3 the distance to the moon? (Aside: My 2-year-old grandson, who loves to knock over stacks of blocks, cards, etc., would be in terrible two's heaven with that pile of dollar bills). Here are some more Earthly examples of how a trillion here and a trillion there makes our weather go round...

Raindrops: The average diameter of an individual raindrop is about 0.1 inches. It's reasonably simple to calculate that one trillion raindrops add up to approximately 2.3 million gallons, enough to fill up 3-4 Olympic-size swimming pools. About 3.5 trillion drops would translate to 1 inch of rain over an area the size of Central Park in New York City, or for you snow lovers out there, about 10 inches of the white stuff. About 2.2 trillion raindrops amount to the average volume of water pouring over Great Falls as the Potomac flows through Potomac River Gorge.

Keep reading for more trillion-themed weather trivia...

Snowflakes: Imagine looking at one square yard of ground during a light to moderate snowstorm. I'd guess about 10 snowflakes fall within that area every second. Starting with this assumption it follows, after some basic arithmetic, that 4.4 trillion snowflakes would land within the area equivalent to that of Washington, D.C. (68.3 square miles) in about 6 hours. Let it snow for another 1.5 hours and the number of snowflakes increases to 5.3 trillion, which would cover a football field with one foot of wet snow (source).

Glacier Melt: Melting Greenland glaciers are estimated to add 58 trillion gallons of freshwater to the ocean each year, which is roughly 16 trillionths of one percent of the total volume of water in all of Earth's oceans.

Lightning: Every few seconds there are more than 100 lightning strikes across the globe with each delivering about one trillion watts of energy (see: source). Coincidentally, powerful auroras can generate up to a trillion watts of power.

And while we're on an energy kick, consider...

Hurricanes: The driving force of hurricanes is the heat released ("latent heat") as moist tropical air condenses to water droplets in the thunderstorms of the eyewall and rainbands. Within an average hurricane the volume of water condensed in one hour generates 24 trillion watts (see source). This is equivalent to 200 times the worldwide electrical generating capacity.

Carbon Dioxide: The current rate of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere from burning of fossil fuels is approximately 30 billion tons (60 trillion pounds) per year (source).

Weather & the Economy: About 1/3rd of the U.S. economy -- $3 trillion -- is weather sensitive. This includes the agriculture, energy, communications, construction, transportation and insurance sectors, among others. The weather's impact on these sectors can be favorable and/or adverse depending on a host of factors, such as the nature, timing and intensity of the phenomenon. For example, adequate rainfall during the growing season can help crops thrive, while extreme cold can wipe them out.

For those so inclined, you're welcome to check my calculations, which are approximate to within a several billion or so -- these days the equivalent of pocket change, or the proverbial drop in the ocean. All are welcome to provide other examples of weather in the trillions. Then stay tuned for the time likely not too far off when quadrillion becomes the new trillion.

By Steve Tracton  | May 1, 2009; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton  
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