Geographic Literacy: Comparing Distance, Size and Area

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

GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS (1118)  Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner Appalachian State University

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 Americans 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 large is your state compared to the countries of 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 to 25 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 most long distance travel will average 50 to 60 mph. This translates into a 10-hour Interstate trip covering about 550 miles, or five days coast to coast.

Two standard geographic calibrations useful to Americans are acres and square miles. One acre equals about 90 percent of an American football field, or 43,560 square feet. There are 640 acres in one square mile.

Comparative Geographic Distance – Geography in the News

A common area yardstick used to compare places is of different sizes is area. 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.

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.

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.

Sources: GITN 859, “Geographic Calibrations,” NGS NewsWatch, May 19, 2014; GITN 859, “Distance and Area Really Matter,” Nov. 17, 2006; and GITN 149, “How Big, How Far,” Oct. 19, 1990.

More related resources from National Geographic Education

NEW video: The Cartographer’s Dilemma

Collection: Map Skills for Elementary Students
Activities and maps for spatial thinking in Grades preK-6


One thought on “Geographic Literacy: Comparing Distance, Size and Area

  1. I am on in years with little memory of geography from my school years.
    The above descriptions is interesting. Looking forward to learning more.

Leave a Reply