Granite Geek: Want To Know Santa's Carbon Footprint? We Have The Numbers

Dec 23, 2014

If Santa used gasoline to make his rounds for Christmas, he would kick climate change into high gear in days. Fortunately that's not the case.
Credit Brady Carlson, NHPR

We all have our holiday traditions – family dinners, decorating, songs, presents... or, in one particular case, doing calculations about some of the most famous parts of the holidays.

That would be the tradition of one David Brooks, who writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org.  He joins All Things Considered to explain some of his calculations on the carbon footprint of Santa Claus and his reindeer.

Now if we were talking about a gasoline-fueled ride, Santa’s biggest present would probably be smog, right?

He would be causing climate change to happen so fast the Earth would turn into the planet Venus in about a week. First you have to figure out how fast Santa is going and how much he's carrying, which I'd done in a different column - making certain assumptions like he goes to one-third of the world, and how much time does he have as the earth spins so he has more than 12 hours of darkness, and things like that. And I finally calculated that he had to travel 5.14 million miles an hour and carry about 250,000 tons of presents.

If you do all this right, he is consuming 5 x 10 15 joules - joules being a measure of kinetic energy. And if you translate that to gasoline, and you calculate how many gallons of gas would have to be used up to produce that, and compare it to the amount used in the United States, you'll find that Santa Claus has to use the equivalent of 27 million times the annual consumption of gasoline in order to do his Christmas Eve jaunt.

And that's all of us put together? Wow.

Yes, the entire country's consumption of gasoline times 27 million - he would use up that energy in one weekend. However, he doesn't burn fossil fuels, does he?

Right - he's got his own eco-friendly system! But even reindeer have their own footprint when it comes to carbon dioxide.

They do indeed. They're ruminants, and so they eat all sorts of weird stuff like grass, and they use bacteria to break it down - you and I don't have that bacteria, that's why we can't eat grass - but unfortunately the bacteria produces methane, and so they do actually release a non-trivial amount of methane. In fact, there have been some calculations that beef grown in the United States contributes up to two percent of our national greenhouse gases, partly because methane's such a potent greenhouse gas.

So I did some calculations, and assuming each reindeer produces - because they're big animals - the ruminant maximum, which is 500 liters of methane a day, one-tenth of a metric ton of carbon, which is the amount of carbon released by 16 gallons of gasoline. So the nine reindeer - I'm counting Rudolph, of course - produce as much carbon as used in 1,044 gallons of gas during the course of Christmas Eve. And that's the equivalent of about 1 2/3 American drivers over the course of the year.

That's not nothing, but that's much better than the first model.

Much better than 27 million times the entire annual consumption of gasoline, that's true. In fact, I think we'd have to give him a big green star for being eco-friendly and managing to do all that much work while only producing a relatively small amount of carbon.

How about the lumps of coal, though? If he wanted to be more eco-friendly wouldn’t he leave kids wood pellets or something?

I hadn't thought of that. I bet he does - in New England Santa leaves a wood pellet in each stocking.