Lake Taupo can fit everyone in the world: True/False?

Not, I assume, while it’s still full of water, but you get the idea. Gillian Travers heard this from her son around fifteen years ago, and he learned it at school. As Gillian suspects, the claim is no longer accurate, but it might surprise you to learn that it was not that long ago.

The world population as of writing is 6.8 billion, give or take a couple of hundred million (the entire population of New Zealand is well within the margin of error, as they say in the political polling business). The area of Lake Taupo is around 620 square kilometres. One person takes up about 0.13 square metres standing shoulder to shoulder — that’s based on figures used by architects and the like — so you just have to do the maths. Oh, you don’t have a calculator? Never got the hang of long division? Alright then: you would need about 880 square kilometres to hold everyone in the world.

Our largest lake clearly can’t hold the entire writhing mass of humanity today but there must have been a time when it could. Using the same numbers we can see that Lake Taupo could hold about 4.8 billion people. Looking back over the records that makes it the destination of choice for a grand family reunion in the mid 1980s. We were already a billion people over Taupo’s capacity when Gillian heard the claim in the mid 1990s.

These kind of comparisons are supposed to help us visualise large numbers, typically to impress us with their magnitude. Here the point seems to be the other way around, to show that the entire human family isn’t really that big after all (but try feeding them!).

If we can’t all fit in Lake Taupo then where can we fit? A cursory look doesn’t turn up any obvious New Zealand candidates but maybe someone knows of a good spot. Then again perhaps we should just quietly give up the title. Imagine if everyone turned up to test out the theory: it may boost tourism figures, but just think of the traffic.

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