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Geography in the News: Geographic Calibrations

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Comprehending Distance and Area

Occasionally we need to be reminded that the concepts of distance and area are important to the day-to-day understanding of breaking news stories, as well as many of our daily personal decisions. Although modern communications and transportation have reduced the roles of distance and area in some activities, by no means has it eliminated the utility of these concepts.

One of the factors in geographic illiteracy among children is that education institutions do a poor job of helping them develop the technique of using spatial “yardsticks” to compare distances and areas. For examples, how far is a mile? How large is an acre? How does the size of your state compare with Iraq or Israel?

The answers to these questions provide geographic calibration for all of us, allowing us to compare distances between places and the size of places. This technique is critical to analyzing many world, country, state, local and personal issues.

In some modern societies, time also is used to measure distances. Travel time, as in miles per hour, however, still relies on understanding standard measurements of distance. So a one-way, 20-minute commute at an average speed of 30 miles per hour would translate into 10 miles, an easy calculation.

The first step in distance or area calibration is to have comparable references, or benchmarks, against which to calculate and compare. For example, one mile is equal to 5,280 feet, or about the distance that a healthy adult can comfortably walk in 20 minutes at a moderate pace over level ground.

The road distance from Los Angeles to New York City is 2,763 miles. Most Interstate highways allow speeds of 65 to 75 mph, but given traffic and refueling stops, most long distance travel will average 50 to 60 mph. This translates into a 10-hour Interstate trip covering about 550 miles. Hence, a cross-country trip by vehicle with daily trips of 550 miles will take about five days.

Long distance truckers regularly must deal with nearly nonstop, cross-country trips, sometimes with perishable goods, requiring two drivers to keep the rigs moving. In such cases, fresh vegetables from the West Coast can arrive in New York City in slightly more than 48 hours by truck.

Two standard geographic calibrations useful to Americans are acres and square miles. One acre equals almost the size of an American football field, less the end zones, or 43,560 square feet. There are 640 acres in one square mile.

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Map by Geography in the News
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

A common area yardstick used to compare places of different sizes is the size of a state in square miles. The smallest U.S. state, Rhode Island, has only 1,545 square miles, only about one-third larger than the average U.S. county of 1,160 square miles. Using North Carolina and Alabama as yardsticks, each has about 50,000 square miles. Of our larger states, Montana and California (147,042 and 163,693 square miles, respectively) are about three times larger than either North Carolina or Alabama. Texas is more than five times larger (268,581 square miles) and Alaska is eleven times larger (663,267 square miles).

Using our yardsticks to compare the sizes of other countries, Israel contains only 8,019 square miles, the size of only about seven U.S. counties. Iraq’s size is 168,754 square miles, almost identical to California. Neighboring Iran has 636,296 square miles, making it nearly as large as Alaska and nearly four times larger than Iraq. Afghanistan contains 250,001 square miles, nearly a third larger than Iraq or California.

The United States is the third largest country in the world at 3.7 million square miles, after Russia (6.6 million square miles) and Canada (3.8 million square miles). China has less total territory, but slightly more land territory than the United States.

Population density, arable land and technology availability are other important yardsticks in geographic calibration. For example, the U.S. population density is about 88 people per square mile. As a comparison, while one of the world’s most densely populated countries, Bangladesh has 2,850 per square mile. Less than 2 percent of American farmers work this country’s 18 percent arable land, but 63 percent of Bangladeshis are involved in agriculture on 58 percent of its 55,600 square miles.

Placing distances and areas in perspective is a very important geographic analytical capability, a capability in decline in our education system. Many people use the technique of comparing distances and areas intuitively. As a technique, however, fewer and fewer students are learning the basics of geographic comparability.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 859, “Distance and Area Really Matter,” Nov. 17, 2006; and GITN 149, “How Big, How Far,” Oct. 19, 1990.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.