The Jeff Wise Blog

Snowfall as a Way to Visualize Death

Looking out my window last night at this winter’s umpteenth flurry, something about the fading light and the softness of the oblivion as the little flakes settled into the sidewalk and instantly melted turned my thoughts to mortality. I wondered, how does this snowfall compare to the overall death rate of the human race?

With a little searching around, I found an estimate of the overall death rate of the world’s human population: 155,000 a day, or 6548 per hour. I guesstimated that about 2 flakes were falling per square foot per second, or about 120 per minute, or 7200 per hour.

That means that as I look out my window, I can imagine that for every flake settling onto a flagstone in my back garden, some person somewhere is passing away.

Filed under: Mortality

4 Responses

  1. lazlo says:

    Very interesting visualization. Of course, every flake was also formed in a cloud somewhere… and similarly, the rate of births is, I believe, within your margin of error, so each flake could represent that as well.

    To extend this even further, given the rate of travel of each snowflake (which I suspect is pretty much constant at that flakes terminal velocity), how far up above that grate would the clouds need to be for there to be 6 billion flakes in transit? Certainly it would be outside the atmosphere (snowflakes don’t take 70 years to fall to earth), rendering the physics of the metaphor impossible, but it is still a kind of interesting thought.

  2. Jeff Wise says:

    Great idea! Life expectancy right now is 78 years in the US; according to one site, a snowflake falls at about 3mph. If you fell at that speed for 78 years, you’d travel 2 million miles, which is eight times the distance to the moon.
    So, for an image of the world’s population at a steady state (which demographers expect to occur around 2050) imagine a tube 2 million miles long and a meter (roughly) across, filled with softly falling snow…
    PS I make no warranties regarding the accuracy of my math

  3. znesic says:


    Interesting visualisation, but an order of magnitude off. Two snowflakes per square foot is about right

    Thanks 🙂

  4. Jeff Wise says:

    Every time I do math on my blog I wind up making at least one profound error. Thanks for setting me straight this time! I’ve edited the post to fix the problem (I think). The relevant area should be one square foot, not one square meter.

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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