Middle Earth Time: Comparing the Age of the Earth to the Lord of the Rings Movies

What if we were to compare Earth’s historical time to Middle Earth’s movie runtime? If we were to compare these two and put them side by side, at what point in the movie would you be during the KPG extinction (the event that killed off most of the dinosaurs)? Think of this like Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar. Except instead of a calendar, it is all the Lord of the Rings movies, and instead of the history of the whole universe, it is just the history of the Earth.

So to start out, we need to know how long both are in order to create a conversion rate. The Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years (4,600,000,000 years). If we were to put all the movies together and cut out all the end credits, the movies run for 10 hours, 26 minutes, and 59 seconds. In seconds, it runs for 37,619 seconds.

(Note: I am using the theatrical version for Fellowship, but extended versions for Two Towers and Return of the King because it is all I could find)

With these numbers, for every second that passes in the movies, 122,278.6355 years pass in Earth time. For every year that passes on Earth time, 8.178043×10-6 seconds pass in the movies. Another way to write this is 0.000008178043 seconds pass.

(The links will take you to Youtube clips of the specific scene I am talking about)

As the Earth has finished forming, our movie begins. The screen is black and about to show the New Line Cinema logo. For several hundred million years the Earth is being bombarded by a shower of meteors. In movie time, the meteor bombardment lasts for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

As the bombardment stops, Elrond is in a private meeting at his home with Gandalf, and says “men? Men are weak.” Time continues on Earth until we get to the formation of the oldest sedimentary rocks we have ever found (3.9 billion years old). At this time in the movie, Bilbo is grabbing Frodo’s hand as he is saddened that the Ring has tempted him again (1 hour and 35 minutes into Fellowship of the Ring). This is right after Bilbo makes the scary face at Frodo.

Fast forward in Earth time to the first eukaryotic cells, and in the movies we are already at the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers. The orcs are firing a ballista at the wall (this is shortly after Gimli asks Aragorn to toss him during the battle).

Fast forward even more to the first mammals and dinosaurs on earth, and we are already well over 3 and a half hours of Return of the King! Frodo and Sam are already inside of Mount Doom, and Golem is attacking Frodo as he is invisible and is about to bite his finger off.

By the time of the KPG extinction (when most of the dinosaurs go extinct), the Ring is already destroyed, the hobbits have already gone home, and Frodo is finishing Bilbo’s book with the words “Bilbo’s story is now over. There would be no more journeys for him.”

The first hominids (our earliest ancestors) come in on the scene of Earth time, but Sam is just closing his gate with his family behind him. There is only seconds left in the film. As “The End” enters the screen in movie time, homo sapiens make their first appearance, the earliest know cave art is found, Julius Caesar was killed, China built the Great Wall, World War 2 was fought, and everyone you and I have ever know were born. The screen fades to complete black, and we are now back at current Earth Time.

Here is a graph of all the time stamps and a direct comparison between Earth time and the movie times:

lotr-time-graph

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What if we got rid of fossil fuels immediately?

Just as a hypothetical, what if we decided to pack up all oil, gas, and coal developments and go home? What if we decided that we have had enough of fossil fuel pollution, and decided to outlaw the practice of drilling and mining fossil fuels, as well as selling it. I don’t mean a slow transition, but an immediate shift. The purpose of this is to put into perspective what our energy needs and energy market looks like today.

Let’s start with how much energy is consumed and where it comes from. Below is a table created by the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing by energy source how much is being consumed. The units are represented in quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTU).

primary-energy-consumption

In case you didn’t know, a BTU is a lot like a calorie, in that is how much energy is needed to raise a specific amount of water a specific temperature. In the case of BTUs, one BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The average household uses about 263.5 million BTUs a year. Compare this number to the amount of BTUs consumed by the United States in a year (specifically 2015), which is 97.344 quadrillion BTUs. To show you the scope of these numbers, I want to write them out fully for you.

The average household consumes 263,500,000 BTUs a year.

The United States in 2015 consumed 97,344,000,000,000,000 BTUs.

This is clearly massive, but how much of it is from fossil fuels? According to the EIA, 79.330 quadrillion BTUs of energy consumed in the United States comes from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum). This means about 81.5% of our energy consumption in the United States comes from fossil fuels! About 8.6% comes from nuclear energy. 0.44% comes from solar power, and 1.8% comes from wind power. With all the renewables together (wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass), the number is about 9.7% of our energy consumption.

These numbers should be enlightening. It means that today we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and based on the shear amount of energy we get from it, it will be difficult to shift. However, if it were to be an irresponsible and immediate shift, we could assume that we would be 81.5% the energy we demand! This would be gas lines like in the 1970s, and huge electricity shortages across the nations.

To us that live relatively comfortable lives, blackouts don’t sound like big deal. We have dealt with blackouts in snowstorms or ferocious lightning storms. But think of the hospitals need that power to save lives. Think of the 911 responders that now will be without communication. Think of the families that need to refrigerate life-saving medication. Think of all the food that will go bad. Think of the traffic lights in busy cities that will no longer work. Think of the people that live in dire cold environments that will struggle to keep themselves warm. Think of the people that live in dire hot and humid environments that would no longer be able to keep themselves cool. These are all life-threatening situations, and as of right now, oil, gas, and coal are the reliable and cheap energy sources that make it so these things do not happen.

If we were to hypothetically remove fossil fuels altogether, we would fix these problems eventually, right? We would probably be hard at work constructing nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and digging for geothermal energy, but all these endeavors require a lot of energy to do! It takes a lot of energy to construct massive concrete towers for nuclear reactors. It takes a lot of energy to build massive concrete dams or even to get the materials to the rivers in the first place. All of this development for these alternative energy resources would require a lot of energy we wouldn’t have because we have removed fossil fuels entirely. How would we have enough energy to fix this problem in the time we needed it? People would undergo incredible suffering and death while waiting for this solution to come, if it ever could come in time.

To give you a concrete example of this, Southern Australia tried kicking out oil and gas recently. They decided to become reliant on wind energy, unfortunately for them wind is not an incredibly reliant form of energy. The wind doesn’t always blow. Because of this prices would spike up to $14,000 a megawatt hour in Southern Australia, and have averaged around $360 a megawatt hour! Compare this price to other areas in Australia that pay around $90 a megawatt hour. Supply in energy dropped in Southern Australia and prices skyrocketed. Since then, Southern Australia has begged natural gas plants to resume operation.

Getting rid of fossil fuels in one swoop would be terrifying! But so many young people today truly believe that we should immediately introduce legislation in states to get rid of oil and gas. Luckily, I don’t believe this is a widespread belief, but one that I have come across enough to feel like I should write this post. Every time I come across this idea, I can’t help but face palm harder and harder.

And to be clear, I am not saying we couldn’t ever live in a prosperous world without fossil fuels. I am simply saying that is not our world today, and it will not be our world for many days to come. We demand a huge amount of energy, and right now, our current renewable energy sources are not appearing to be the panacea we need.

Do We Know Enough About Energy Policy?

Energy policy can be really boring to most people. Energy policy combines a lot of technology and science issues with socio-economic and political issues, which creates a complex relationship. Within this complex relationship, there is a lot of published data, ongoing research, and political work-arounds.

Furthermore, its topics don’t grab young minds like drug policy or foreign policy. I suppose oil and gas is not as sexy to think about as the implications of joints and bombs. I get it. Well, I understand you, but I don’t agree with you.

However, something that became clear to me when I became more interested in energy policy is that almost no one seems to understand it even a little bit. It is like there is a complete black out of knowledge among Americans when it comes to our energy policy and interests. This surprised me because energy policy is so important. It effects everyone in the United States no matter what. If you are reading this blog, you are using energy to read this blog and to keep the servers up for this blog. We all have lights to turn on. We all have vehicles to ride in, whether it is our own car, a bus, or an Uber. Our lives, our planet, and our standards of living are all in wedlock with the energy policies of the nation.

Many friends of mine were fascinated with the Standing Rock protests, which how could you not be with the terrible brutality those protesters had to go through. Yet, very few of these friends had much of a coherent clue of what it was they wanted. They didn’t know how much pipeline had already been built in the United States (around 2.5 million miles), and why this was decided as an effective method to transport oil and gas. They didn’t know what alternatives there were to a pipeline, and they didn’t really know where this pipeline was being placed and who had ownership of this land. However, these to me were minor lapses of understanding. I mean besides industry leaders and top policy wonks, who could really give you the amount of pipeline built in the US right off the top of their head? (Me. THAT’S WHO!)

The most egregious misunderstanding is that many of them truly believed we could live in a world without fossil fuels right now. That we could simply pack up our oil, gas, and coal operations, and there would only be minor complications. This is laughably ignorant, and it is such a widespread idea among college students! Even students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is an engineering and science school! I don’t want to get too bogged down on this specific point and will devote a post on its own to this topic, but looking at the primary energy consumption data posted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration should help clear up this fable. Looking at the amount of energy produced in total from 2015 (97.22 quadrillion BTUs) compared to the amount of energy produced by renewables, which includes hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass, in 2015 (9.450 quadrillion BTUs), it is clear that renewables have a lot of work to do before we can completely throw away fossil fuels. Getting rid of oil and gas outright would clearly cause widespread shortages, which means immense suffering among people that need electricity right now (think hospitals, 911 responders, etc).

And my anecdotal evidence of my friends is not the only evidence I have for people being grossly ignorant on energy policy issues. Americans have been historically really bad with energy policy.

In 1978, two thirds of Americans polled thought that a nuclear power plant accident could result in an explosion like Hiroshima. Furthermore, this was around the same time that James Bridges’ movie, The China Syndrome, came out, which claimed that during a nuclear power plant melt down, the fuel rods would be so hot that they could burrow all the way to China. People watched and, presumably, believed this movie.

In 1977, 52% of Americans polled by Roper answered that they thought solar power would overtake foreign oil imports in the next 5 years, and 16% thought that wind power could do it. Yet here we are, still importing foreign oil 40 years later.

In the 1970s, a majority of Americans thought that the gas lines and energy shortages were due to oil companies greedily hiding their oil somewhere out of the United States so that they could sell oil for higher prices! As if the instability in the Middle East (particularly Israel and Egypt), environmental regulations, and inflation played absolutely no roles in rising oil prices!

But perhaps, people are smarter now. All these examples are from the 1970s, and after 40 years, perhaps the public became wiser. I will delve into this question on future blog posts. I have to get you to come back to my blog somehow!

 

(The historical polls referenced in this post all came from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy, which can be bought on Amazon here)