What’s an Iceberg if not Sized Relative to Manhattan? (Not a Volkswagen)

Lessons to be learned from a Minnesota Public Radio blogger’s asking why it’s so often Manhattan … or Rhode Island or a VW? … that comes into play in communicating on relative sizes of events.


Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins had a witty and timely commentary recently that provides the proverbial teachable moment for those finding themselves communicating about the size and scope of, let’s say, a wildfire, or a heat wave, or a melting glacier.

“Why is it always about you, New York?” Collins asked in an MPR blog post. He was off-loading on the recent calving of an iceberg from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, the one that was “twice the size of Manhattan.” (He didn’t comment on the good fortune, from the perspective of Rhode Islanders, that it didn’t lead to the all-too-frequent headlines equating the newly liberated berg to the size of “The Ocean State.”)

“What else is twice the size of Manhattan?” Collins asked. “Just about everywhere else. Manhattan is tiny at only 22 square miles. Manhattan isn’t even the size of Woodbury,” a Twin Cities suburb.

“You know what’s bigger than the iceberg? Minneapolis,” Collins jested. “It’s 53 square miles. But ‘an iceberg that would easily fit into the boundaries of Minneapolis’ (and you, too, Saint Paul) doesn’t quite cut it in the drama department.”

“Why use Manhattan as the measure of size? Because it suggests something is huge that is not, in fact, as huge as we’re led to believe. We think of Manhattan as big because of the size of the buildings there and the number of people there. The iceberg actually would’ve fit nicely into the Bronx. But people don’t think of the Bronx as huge.”

Commenting on the Collins post, one scribe pointed to “the ubiquitous use of Volkswagens as a unit of measure.”

Another commenter, acknowledging personal guilt for his often using the Manhattan analogy, offered this rationale: “a vibrant, chaotic, confusing melting-pot of diverse cultures, languages, and multi-dimensional histories that make it a symbol that, I believe, more people on this globe can relate to the many local places.”

To a third commenter’s point that “It also helps that Manhattan is an island with clearly defined boundaries (water!), so it is at least slightly easier to visualize,” Collins replied, “In that case, ‘six times the size of Key West’ works, too. :*)” … complete with the emoticon.

Moral of the story: Next time a well-known glacier calves a big one (it probably won’t be too long off), don’t expect the media to rush out with size comparisons relative to Mankato, Duluth, or, for that matter, most other places other than Manhattan and Rhode Island … and perhaps Volkswagens.

(A hat-tip to NASA and George Mason University meteorologist Joe Witte for bringing this episode to our attention.)

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