In the end, the massive wildfires in Southern California burned an area that many reports described as about the size of Rhode Island. Now, that's probably a phrase you've heard before. As the smallest U.S. state, Rhode Island has the distinction—or perhaps the misfortune—of being one of the news media's most convenient geographic yardsticks. As in, Hey! This thing is so big, it's as big as a whole state! Just how big is Rhode Island, anyway?
Rhode Island comprises 1,545 square miles. However, if you exclude the area of Narragansett Bay, the land mass of Rhode Island is 1,045 square miles. And those two measurements are handy for journalists, because something can be either 1,000 or 1,500 square miles, and still be about the size of Rhode Island.
But since square mileage probably doesn't give you a picture of how big the Ocean State really is, here are a few comparisons drawn from news stories.
For example, you already know that Rhode Island is about the size of the area burned in the recent California wildfires. The New York Times also told us in February that Rhode Island is about the size of something else in California, Yosemite National Park.
The Orlando Sentinel informs us that Rhode Island is about the size of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an underwater reserve off the Massachusetts coast—which means it's also NEAR Rhode Island.
The Ocean State is about the size of an Antarctic ice shelf called Larsen B that disintegrated last year into small icebergs and fragments, according to the Washington Post. (International papers, of course, chose very different points of reference, as Slate's June Thomas noted last year.)
Rhode Island is about the size of pieces of earth that slide off Hawaiian volcanoes every 300,000 years or so, causing massive tidal waves from California to Australia. Luckily, the New York Times article that mentions this also says such an event is not imminent.
People in Texas seem to like comparisons to Rhode Island. For example, it's about the size of the area covered by Houston's bus system, and about the size of the King Cattle Ranch near Corpus Christi. And Rhode Island is a little smaller than Prince Edward Island in Canada, a little bigger than the Golan Heights, and about the same size as the citrus groves of Florida.
Of course, these are all literal size comparisons. But Rhode Island sometimes finds its way into news stories in a more figurative manner. For example, a teammate once described the strike zone formed when 6-foot-10-inch baseball player Randy Johnson stepped to the plate as about the size of Rhode Island. And if you ever find yourself famished and in New York City, you might want to stop by Via Emilia trattoria on Park Avenue. A review once singled out the $12.50 pork chop, which it said is about the size of ... you guessed it.