Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The oil fireworks

fireworksState College is gearing up for one of the biggest local fireworks displays in the nation, the Central PA 4th Fest. 

It's a great show - especially if, like our family last year, you are lucky enough to score tickets to the VIP viewing area (read close and loud). But there is always something about fireworks that leaves me melancholy.  It's the contrast between the painstaking set-up, weeks of work and effort, and the "brief candle" of the show itself.  Flame, smoke and noise are hurled at the night for a few minutes - energy is dissipated at a prodigious rate - but the result is no more substantial than a sandcastle at the beach.  The performance finishes and, like the tide, the enveloping darkness rolls back.

Let's try to get quantitative about this.  The 4th Fest show lasts about 40-50 minutes, and preparation for next year's show starts on July 5th of the year before.  This means that the "set-up" time is about four orders of magnitude greater than the "burn-up".

For contrast, let's think about oil. Oil forms over geological timescales, mostly from marine life (plankton) - the Mesozoic period, roughly 250 to 60 million years ago, is thought to be when much present-day oil was formed. And, as readers know, our present rate of consumption will exhaust the earth's known reserves on a timescale of a hundred years or less.

Let's build some room for "good news" into these figures by taking 50 million years as the "set-up" time when our oil was formed, and 500 years as the "burn-up" time.  That is a ratio of five orders of magnitude - ten times what we saw for the 4th Fest.

It's as if the planet has been preparing all year for the five-minute firework display - a "blip in the span of time" - that is our present oil-based civilization.

Perhaps, it would be a good idea to think about what comes next?

Image by Flickr user "SJ photography", licensed under Creative Commons. Click image for license information.

1 comment:

John Roe said...

If you want to see what a 10-times speeded up firework display would look like, it happened by accident in San Diego last night. Take a look.