Putting All the World’s Water into a Big Cube

One of the most boggling experiences I have is standing on a beach staring at the ocean.  It’s just a silly amount of water.  And then there’s all this water underground, and more in the atmosphere, and there are lakes and rivers and streams and marshes and swamps and snow and glaciers and ponds and puddles.

So I’ve been thinking about all this water and how I don’t really have a handle on how much of it there really is.  It’s clear what needs to happen—

I need to cube it.

I need to put all the world’s water in cubes so I can look at it all at once and grasp how much there really is.  It’s only fair.

Let’s start by examining where all the Earth’s water is—

Okay so almost all of the Earth’s water—over 97%—is sitting there in the oceans.  This isn’t hugely surprising, but what did interest me is that of the 3% of all the water that’s fresh water, only .3% (or 3/1000ths) of that is the kind of fresh water we know well—lakes, rivers, and other surface water that humans and most other animals drink.  The rest of the fresh water—99.7% of it—is icecaps and glaciers, underground water, and water floating in the atmosphere.  In fact, all the lakes in the world amount to only about 1/250th of the amount of water in glaciers and icecaps.

So anyway, if you took all of that water and put it into a huge cube, how big would the cube be?

Below, see the Earth with the water in all the normal places, and then we’ll strip all the water and put it into a cube on top of the US.

There you have it.  All the water underground, on the surface, and in the atmosphere amounts to about 332 million cubic miles.  That makes a cube with a side of 693 miles, whose base stretches from Indianapolis to Denver.  It doesn’t feel like you could even fill the Pacific with the water in that cube, let alone everything else.  So I guess the big takeaway here is that the Earth’s oceans are nothing more than a thin film on the surface of the Earth, relatively speaking.
And how big would a cube of just the fresh water be?  It would have sides 202 miles long and sit nicely on top of Iowa.
And the drinkable water cube? Its sides would be 29 miles long and it would fit into Rhode Island.
It blew my mind that all the world’s lakes and rivers would fit into that cube.  And that’s the drinking water that all animals have to share.
Let’s keep going—
Within this cube of drinking water, you could cut out a smaller cube (8 mile sides) that contains all the rivers, streams, and brooks on Earth—the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Nile and all the rest—and another (6.5 mile sides) that contains all water inside of all of Earth’s living things.  These would sit comfortably on top of Queens and Brooklyn.
Just for fun, let’s put each of the Great Lakes in cubes.  Each cube is next to its own lake:
And let’s look at the oceans individually.  We’ll throw in the tiny Mediterranean cube too:
To recap:

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34 comments - jump to comment field »

  1. Anonymous

    I would argue that underground water is a big source of the “fresh water we all know well.” Many homes in the U.S. use underground wells for their primary or secondary water source.

  2. Kudos for a great post; I loved your idea of putting an unfathomable amount of water into units that people can grasp more easily!

    Though, I think that the real mind-blower here is that nobody pointed out how you just compared volumes in terms of areas. The 693-mile cube is more than 3 times taller than the altitude of the international space station, and that height alone is unfathomable to me… Which again leaves me without a handle on how much water there is on the earth (>_<)

    • Yes, great point. The reason the cubes can fit such a huge amount of water is that big cubes on the Earth’s surface stretch into space. Even the small 8 or 9-mile cubes are higher than airplanes fly. That was one of the most interesting things I thought about during this—how thin the atmosphere really is and how close space is to us.

    • Jeras

      I believe it is because of this particular point, maybe, cubes aren’t that good for visualizing and imagining great volumes. Just think about it – 1 cubic meter of water seems like not much, just one meter on each side, but if you convert it to liters, which are an equivalent of cubic decimeters, you see that you have 1000 liters and thats 500 2-liter bottles. Wikipedia gives us reference daily intake for water of 3.7 L/day for males and 2.7 L/day for females, all older than 18, although I higly doubt there are a lot of people, who drink as much water daily, but even then, taking the average 3.2 litters of water a day for a typical human being, the amount of water in that 1 cubic meter is enough for almost a year – 312 days and if you’re lucky enough to be a woman, you can actually make it a full year plus 4 more days (although personally, I would survive perfectly well drinking 2 liters and even less each day, as I usually do).

      What my point is – although I enjoy this newly-found site of yours, I suggest to work more on reference points and draw them closer to everyday life objects and experiences, when doing these kind of articles.

      Of course, most importantly – keep on writing these articles and don’t stop. (:

    • Anonymous

      Great point, for reference, the tallest mountain, Mt Everest, is ‘only’ 5.5 miles high. Love you WBW, don’t ever stop blogging! But I’m not a fan of how the cubes were used.

    • Anonymous

      The Ogallala is fossil water, or water from glaciers. You’re going to need a really, really long time to even begin to refill it with rain water.

    • Anonymous

      The Denver aquifer, which is also ancient water, is being replenished in spots by injecting treated surface water during times of high flows. But the current conjunctive use is not enough to replace the mining by the users. Projections are that it will last about 70 years.

  3. This is why we are in trouble. There is very little water that is not polluted to drink and the supply is shrinking. Same with the ocean water. The supply is there, but it is getting more and more polluted as we keep dumping plastic and sludge into it.

  4. You should have taken the volume of water as a sphere, and compared with Sphere of earth and Earth Without Water.That would give us a real comparison on the volume of water, which our minds can imagine.

  5. I hate that image (from 2012) because it’s a much more elegant way to portray what I crudely depicted in my image above and I’m jealous. But I only saw it after I published this one, when someone sent me this Gizmodo article: http://gizmodo.com/5909889/awesome-picture-perfectly-shows-how-little-water-there-is-on-earth. Had I come across that image before I did the post, I would have been thrilled to use it instead of painstakingly graphic designing my own, like I did with the Wikipedia image at the top.

  6. There is this picture from the Science Photo Library ( http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/159214/view ) that shows the earth with water and air gathered into spheres. I have been using this image as a desktop on my computers for years, and take every opportunity to point out how little of each there is (water and air), and how easy it is for us to contaminate it…
    I discovered your blog a few days ago. Great work!

  7. I saw a similar comparison of all water – fresh water – water available in lakes and rivers, this was at high school in the early eighties (so no graphics). What really surprised me was the next step, how much of the surface water is actually located in one single lake – lake Bajkal in Russia. I have tried googling but not found this relationship. According to Wikipedia the volume of water in lake Baikal is 23 000 square km. If I get the miles to km conversion right this would be 23% of all drinkable water.

  8. Anonymous

    Would be great to see the same thing with the cubes sitting on the top of countries vs US states. I like it it is a great visual – you will always remember.

  9. hey

    sorry I just don’t buy it. Looking at the picture of the globe without water and the cube.. just looking at the pacific basin..the entire cube would be used up for a tiny portion of it.

    Sorry dude, either your graphics are wrong or your numbers or both…

  10. Pingback: Creative Data Visualization | Just Think of It

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