Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part V

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Factoids I've researched another set of claims from a 'factoid' e-mail. These focused on geography, with supposed trivia for many different locales. As is normal for these types of e-mails, it was a mix of truth and falsehoods.

I've put the claims in bold, and my responses in plain text. For any comments interspersed with the claims, I've put those in bold italics. The original e-mail had images for each locale (see example). I've dropped them from here to save loading time.

A note on the references - I made the links the full url, not a "pretty" link like I'd normally do on most web pages. That's because I've found that some people have copied and pasted some of my other factoid debunking pages, and in doing so lost the url's to the references. This way, people who copy and paste will at least include the references.


You're gonna say "I didn't know that!" at least 5 times. Really neat stuff here:


More than half of the coastline of the entire United States is in Alaska.
True- Alaska has 6640 miles of coastline (5580 on the Pacific, and 1060 on the Arctic). The total U.S. coastline is 12,383 miles. That puts Alaska at 53.6% of the coastline.


The Amazon rainforest produces more than 20% Of the world's oxygen supply.
False- I haven't been able to find an estimate for the Amazon itself, but much of the discussion I saw on this questioned whether rainforests produce any net oxygen at all, once you balance photosynthesis against decay. In fact, around 70-80% of the free oxygen in the atmosphere is from marine plants, mostly algae.

The Amazon River pushes so much water into the Atlantic Ocean that, more than one hundred miles at sea off the mouth of the river, one can dip fresh water out of the ocean.
True- Of course, this varies with the seasons. It's only in the wet season when the plume is this great.

The volume of water in the Amazon river is greater than the next eight largest rivers in the world combined and three times the flow of all rivers in the United States.
False- This is just barely false. The Amazon has an average discharge of 219,000 m³/s. The next eight largest rivers combined (excluding tributaries of the Amazon), have a combined discharge of 224,620 m³/s. I haven't been able to find stats on the U.S. yet, though. As an interesting related fact, the Amazon carries around 1/5 of all the flowing fresh water in the world.


Antarctica is the only land on our planet that is not owned by any country.
False- Bir Tawil is a 795 square mile patch of land between Egypt and Sudan that is not claimed by any country. An extremely remote region in Antarctica called Marie Byrd Land is unclaimed by any nation, making it the largest unclaimed territory on the planet. However, the status of the rest of Antarctica is a bit tricky. Most of the continent has been claimed by different nations (with a few of the claims overlapping). However, these claims are not recognized universally, and new claims have been suspended since 1959. I wouldn't be surprised if there were any tiny islands that haven't been claimed, but I haven't been able to find any evidence for such islands. An interesting case related to this is that of the Republic of Minerva. Back in the 70s, a millionaire from Vegas decided to build an island to start his own libertarian country. Soon after the island was built, when the only structure on it was the flag pole flying the flag of the Republic of Minerva, the neighboring Kingdom of Tonga 'invaded' with a 90 strong prisoner work detail and a 4 piece band. They lowered the Minervan flag, raised the Tongan flag, and claimed the land for the king.

Ninety percent of the world's ice covers Antarctica.
True- Adding up all the sources of ice listed in the IPCC's Third Assessment Report - Climate Change 2001, the total volume of ice on Earth is 28.74 km³. The Antarctic Ice Sheet by itself is 25.71 km³, or 89.5% of the world's ice. Other sources of ice in Antarctica weren't broken out separately (e.g. all glaciers were listed as one value).
I've seen this stat quoted many places, including fairly reputable sites, but not with any data backing it up.

This ice also represents seventy percent of all the fresh water in the world.
False- It's closer to 61%. According to the USGS, 68% of freshwater is tied up in ice and glaciers. Considering the factoid above, 90% of 68% is 61%. Still, that means more than half of all the freshwater on Earth is in Antarctica.

As strange as it sounds, however, Antarctica is essentially a desert; the average yearly total precipitation is about two inches.
Partly True- If you average the precipitation over the entire continent, it's about 6 inches per year. This is heavily skewed by the coastal regions, which can receive yards of precipitation per year, but most of the continent still receives between 2 and 8 inches per year. In a fairly substantial region of the interior, the precipitation is down to around 2 inches per year.

Although covered with ice (all but 0.4% of it, ice.), Antarctica is the driest place on the planet, with an absolute humidity lower than the Gobi desert.
Maybe- The article below discusses the difficulty in measuring humidity in conditions as cold as those in Antarctica. I've also run into difficulty finding absolute humidity measurements for different areas. As far as the title for driest place on Earth, look below for the discussion on rainfall, where I discuss the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica and the Atacama Desert of Chile.
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=219650&jid=ANS&volumeId=11&issueId=01&aid=219649 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atacama_Desert#The_driest_desert


Brazil got its name from the nut, not the other way around.
False- The actual etymology of 'Brazil' is disputed, but it almost certainly isn't named after the Brazil nut. Although, that is similar to one of the proposed origins. Brazil was originally named Ilha de Vera Cruz, then Terra de Santa Cruz, and then later Brazil. The two leading hypotheses for the origin of Brazil are that it was named after the legendary Irish island of Hy-Brazil, or that it was named after brazilwood (not brazil nuts). In Celtic, Hy-Brazil meant something along the lines of 'Blessed land'. 'Brazilwood' is derived from 'brasa', Latin for ember, since the wood was red like an ember. After looking at the sources used in those Wikipedia articles I've linked to below, I think the brazilwood explanation seems a bit more likely.


Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined.
True- By number, I haven't found a good answer. According to one estimate, there are 307 million lakes in the world, but I haven't found an estimate for Canada. By area, one estimate puts freshwater lakes at 1,500,000 km², while Canada has 890,000 km² total freshwater. Assuming that is mostly lakes, not rivers or creeks, Canada has 59% of the world's lake area.
http://www.currentresults.com/Environment-Facts/number-lakes-in-world.php http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-0058-99/

Canada is an Indian word meaning 'Big Village'.
True enough- In the Indian language, St. Lawrence Iroquoian, kanata means 'village', not 'big village', but that's still pretty close. Since the Iroquois didn't use the Latin alphabet, I don't think the difference in spelling between Canada and kanata is very significant.


Next to Warsaw, Chicago has the largest Polish population In the world.
False- Chicago has a total population of a little less than 2.6 million. According to the 2008 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates for Total Ancestry Reported, 5.8% of the population identified themselves as Polish, which would be 151,000 based on the total population. According to the 2000 U.S. census, 7.3% of Chicago was Polish, which would be 190,000 based on the total population. According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, 6.7% of the population were Polish. This survey actually reported the total number, as well, at 182,064. At any rate, it's safe to say that around 200,000 people in Chicago are of Polish descent. There are 17 cities in Poland with populations higher than 200,000, including Warsaw, Kraków, Lódz, Wroclaw, Poznan, Gdansk, Szczecin, Bydgoszcz, Lublin, Katowice, Bialystok, Gdynia, Czestochowa, Radom, Sosnowiec, Torun, and Kielce.


Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, carries the designation M-1, so named because it was the first paved road anywhere.
False- The road now named M-1 received that designation in 1970. Prior to that, it was US 10, which was opened in 1939. The M-1 designation has nothing to do with the claim in this factoid. Michigan had reserved the M-x designations for superhighways, but once the Eisenhower Interstate System was built, there was no need for Michigan's own superhighways. So, with the M-x designations free, Michigan renamed US 10 as M-1 because it was Detroit's main street.

As far as the first paved road, it all depends on what you mean by paved. Geologists have found a 4,600 year old road in Egypt that was paved with slabs of sandstone and limestone and even some logs of petrified wood. Roman roads are well know for being paved. As far as other materials, it appears that Baghdad used tar to pave its streets back in the 8th century. From about the 1700s onward, Europeans began developing new paving techniques. John Loudon McAdam developed macadam roads in the early 1800s, which originally used packed gravel, but without a binder. According to at least one source, the first macadam road in the U.S. was the Boonsborough Turnpike Road in Maryland, which opened in 1830. People soon began experimenting with different binders to keep the dust down and waterproof the roads. Nearly a century later in 1901, Edgar Purnell Hooley patented tarmac (tarred macadam), where the stones and tar were mixed together prior to being laid down on the road surface and then compacted. Also in the early 1800s, people began experimenting with roads using asphalt rocks (not what we refer to as asphalt roads today - technically, asphalt is a type of rock, and the material modern roads are made of is asphalt concrete). In the late 1800s, Edward de Smedt developed asphalt concrete, the type of paving that's so common today. According to the sources below, the first use of this asphalt concrete were Battery Park and Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1872.

There's a claim that a one mile stretch of M-1 was the first use of concrete pavement for a road in in 1901. Some claims say this is for the world, some just for the U.S. However, a street in Bellefontaine, Ohio was paved with concrete back in 1891. And as far as worldwide, the Romans were making concrete roads back in the 4th century, BC.


Damascus, Syria

Damascus, Syria, was flourishing a couple of thousand years before Rome was founded in 753 BC, making it the oldest continuously inhabited city in existence.
True, but with a typo- Although the traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 BC, the region has been inhabited since approximately 1000 BC. Damascus has evidence of habitation dating to 8,000 to 10,000 BC, so it's a bit more than just 2000 years older than Rome. A few other cities with evidence of habitation prior to 3000 BC are Jericho, Byblos, Sidon, Medinat Al-Fayoum, Gaziantep, Rayy, and Beirut. The two big questions for each of these cities, though, is whether they were ever abandoned for any period, and whether we might one day find older evidence of habitation. I think it's safe to say that the current consensus is that Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city, but I wouldn't bet my life on the consensus never changing.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey, is the only city in the world located on two continents.
False- Although Istanbul does span two continents, it is not the only city to do so. Atyrau, Kazakhstan and Orenburg, Russia, are just two examples. The Wikipedia link below lists a few more examples. It's also important to keep in mind that the conventional boundaries for the continents are somewhat arbitrary. The greater parts of Europe and Asia, for example, are on the same tectonic plate, and are one continuous landmass. India and the Middle East, which are considered part of Asia, each ride on their own plate.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles' full name is: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula -- and can be abbreviated to 3.63% of its size: L.A.
False- The official name given to the city when it was found was simply El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. It may have been popularly known by the longer name, or, to quote Wikipedia, the longer name may be an embellishment due to "histories written by the Franciscan missionaries, especially Francisco Palóu, who wished to play up the region's connections to their order." At any rate, the original name of a city is not it's official current name. The full name for L.A., as given on the city seal, is The City of Los Angeles.

New York City

The term 'The Big Apple' was coined by touring jazz musicians of the 1930s Who used the slang expression 'apple' for any town or city. Therefore, to play New York City is to play the big time - The Big Apple.
Maybe Partly True- An amateur etymologist, Barry Popick, has done quite a bit of research on the origin of 'The Big Apple'. First of all, the date claimed in this factoid is wrong. Popick found a sports writer, John J. Fitz Gerald, using the term to describe New York in the New York Morning Telegraph starting in 1921. However, Fitz Gerald himself said that he first heard the term from some stable hands down in New Orleans. This is where the etymology becomes a little more questionable. Around the same time as Fitz Gerald, a writer for the Chicago Defender, "Ragtime" Billy Tucker, was also using the term 'Big Apple', but not exclusively for New York. In an article from 1920, he called L.A. the 'Big Apple', while in another article from 1922 he called New York 'the big apple'. So, it seems that 'Big Apple' may have originally been a generic term for big cities, which only later was restricted to New York, possibly under the influence of Fitz Gerald's writing.

There are more Irish in New York City than in Dublin, Ireland;
False (barely)- New York has a total population of around 8.4 million. According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, 5.2% of New Yorkers are Irish, for a total of around 437,000. Dublin has a population of around 506,000.

More Italians in New York City than in Rome, Italy;
False- New York has a total population of around 8.4 million. According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, 8.2% of New Yorkers are Italian, for a total of 689,000. Rome has a population of around 2.7 million.

And more Jews in New York City than in Tel Aviv, Israel.
True- New York has a total population of around 8.4 million. According to a Jewish community study, 12% of New Yorkers claim to be of Jewish or of Jewish descent, for a total of around 1 million. Tel Aviv has a population of around 394,000.


There are no natural lakes in the state of Ohio, every one is manmade.
False- This myth is so widespread that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources actually commissioned a report on the subject. The conclusion of the report states, "There are 110 natural lakes in Ohio larger than five acres, covering a total surface area of 4,658 acres. These lakes occur in 21 of Ohio's 88 counties. Summit County has the most lakes with 34, followed by Portage County with 16, and Geauga County with nine. Portage County has the largest area covered by natural lakes with 1,493 acres, followed by Summit County with 1,216 acres, and Stark County with 452 acres." The largest of the lakes is Aurora Pond in Portage County, at 345 acres.

Pitcairn Island

The smallest island with country status is Pitcairn in Polynesia, at just 1.75 sq. Miles/4.53 sq. km.
False- The Pitcairn Islands are a British Overseas Territory, not an independent nation. Combined, the four islands have a total area of around 18 square miles. However, Pitcairn Island is the only inhabited island of the country (with a population of around 50), and it does have an area of around 1.8 square miles. The smallest archipelago when taking into account all islands is Tokelau, whose three atolls total 5 square miles, with a population of around 1500. However, Tokelau is not an independent nation either, but rather a territory of New Zealand (two recent referenda for self-governance each just failed to pass with a 2/3 majority). The smallest completely independent island nation is Nauru, whose single island is 8.1 square miles, with a population of around 14,000.


The first city to reach a population of 1 million people was Rome, Italy in 133 B.C.
Unsure- Rome was one of the world's most dominant cities in the period quoted in the factoid, but it's difficult to accurately estimate the populations of ancient cities (and certainly not down to specific years). Some estimates have Rome exceeding a population of 1 million by the end of the first century, B.C., with Alexandria having a similar population. According to other estimates, however, Rome and Alexandria only had half a million people during that period, and the first cities to reach 1 million were Baghdad and Beijing in the 8th or 9th century.

There is a city called Rome on every continent.
False- There are no cities on Antarctica. Ignoring that continent, it depends on how you allow the name to be spelled. For example, in Italy itself, the city is called Roma. But, even allowing for alternate spellings, I haven't been able to find a city named Rome or Roma in Asia or South America. Here is a list of at least one Rome/Roma for the continents that do have one (some continents, such as North America, have quite a few).



Siberia contains more than 25% of the world's forests.
Close- I've seen multiple sources saying Siberia has around 20% of the world's forest. It's difficult to find hard numbers, though.


The actual smallest sovereign entity in the world is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (S.M.O.M).
Unsure- It depends on who you ask. Some nations do have diplomatic relations with the S.M.O.M. and recognize it as a sovereign entity, while other nations, including the U.S., do not. It began as the Knights Hospitallers in the 11th century, was involved in the crusades, controlled Cyprus and then Malta for a period, before taking up its current residence in Rome after losing Malta to Napolean. It has two 'territories', the Palazzo Malta and the Villa Malta. Both of those have been granted extraterritoriality. It's main purpose now is conducting humanitarian missions, along the lines of the Red Cross.

It is located in the city of Rome, Italy.
True- The Palazzo Malta is in Via dei Condotti 68. The Villa Malta is on the Aventine.

Has an area of two tennis courts,
Probably False- I haven't found any stats yet on the total area of the S.M.O.M. However, looking at photos of the Villa Malta, it appears bigger than the size of two tennis courts.

And, as of 2001, has a population of 80 -- 20 less people than the Vatican.
Unsure- There are 13,000 knights in the order, which presumably means 13,000 citizens (although most of those knights are also citizens of other countries). However, as far as the permanent populations of the Palazzo Malta and the Villa Malta - I'm not sure if anyone actually lives there, or if they're mainly office buildings.
http://geography.about.com/od/politicalgeography/a/knightsmalta.htm http://www.orderofmalta.org/the-order-and-its-institutions/310/the-knights-of-malta/?lang=en

It is a sovereign entity under international law, just as the Vatican is.
Unsure- This is the same as I wrote about the first factoid on the S.M.O.M. It all depends on who you ask.

Sahara Desert

In the Sahara Desert, there is a town named Tidikelt, Algeria, which did not receive a drop of rain for ten years.
Unsure- I've seen this factoid repeated numerous places, but haven't yet found any data confirming it.

Technically though, the driest place on Earth is in the valleys of the Antarctic near Ross Island. There has been no rainfall there for two million years.
Partly False- & Partly True- The title of Driest Place on Earth is probably down to two regions - the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, and the Atacama Desert in Chile. Both have been compared to Mars for how dry the soil is. The precipitation claim for the McMurdo Dry Valleys is wrong, unfortunately. According to the study linked to below, the valleys do receive precipitation, just not very much. In some areas, it's as low as a few millimeters per year. The Atacama also has rainfall levels down in the millimeters per year. However, there are some weather stations there that haven't detected a drop of rain since they've been installed.


Spain literally means 'the land of rabbits'.
False, but with a grain of truth- The word, 'Spain', does not mean anything other than the country. However, 'Spain' is the English cognate of 'España'. 'España' still doesn't literally mean 'the land of rabbits', but out of the several proposed origins of the word, one of them is the Punic Ispanihad, which does mean 'the land of rabbits'. Roman coins from the region even show a female figure with a rabbit at her feet. However, there are other plausible etymologies, such as the Greek Hesperia (western land), the Basque Ezpanna (edge or border), the Iberian Hispalis (city of the western world), or the Phoenician i-spn-ya (the land where metals are forged).

St. Paul , Minnesota

St. Paul , Minnesota , was originally called Pig's Eye after a man named Pierre 'Pig's Eye' Parrant who set up the first business there.
True- The first U.S. settlement in the region after the Louisiana Purchase was Fort Snelling. The military didn't allow settlers on fort lands, so Pierre 'Pig's Eye' Parrant set up his tavern on the opposite side of the river near what's known now as Lambert's Landing. The region became known to locals as Pig's Eye, or Pig's Eye Landing. As to whether Parrant's tavern was the first business there, or simply one of the most popular, I'm not sure.


Chances that a road is unpaved:
in the U.S.A. . = 1%;
in Canada = ...75%

False- According to the CIA's World Factbook, the U.S. has 4,209,835 km of paved roads, and 2,255,964 km of unpaved roads. So, just over a third, or 35%, of U.S. roads are unpaved. From the same source, Canada has 415,600 km of paved roads, and 626,700 km of unpaved roads. So, just under two-thirds, or 60%, of Canadian roads are unpaved.


The deepest hole ever drilled by man is the Kola Superdeep Borehole, in Russia. It reached a depth of 12,261 meters (about 40,226 feet or 7.62 miles). It was drilled for scientific research and gave up some unexpected discoveries, one of which was a huge deposit of hydrogen - so massive that the mud coming from the hole was boiling with it.
True- I'm always tentative to confirm a superlative, but this appears to be true. The project was an attempt to reach the intersection of the mantle and the crust. Although it failed to reach that goal, it's been the most successful attempt thus far. The hole is actually a central shaft with several branches going out from it. The deepest of those branches is known as SG-3, and reached that depth in 1989 - 19 years after drilling began in 1970. The project continued with other branches until 1994. The main technical problem was that the temperatures encountered were higher than expected, so they couldn't adequately cool the drill. Also, the material properties of the rock at those temperatures and pressures was more plastic than solid, and holes would flow closed when they pulled the drill out to change the bit.

United States

The Eisenhower interstate system requires that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections are usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.
False- This one has become so prevalent that the Federal Highway Administration of the Department of Transportation posted an article to debunk it. The only semblance of truth the author of that article could find was that "Congress considered including a flight strip program in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 — the law that authorized designation of a 'National System of Interstate Highways.' However, the 1944 act did not include the flight strip program."


The water of Angel Falls (the world's highest) in Venezuela drops 3,212 feet (979 meters). They are 15 times higher than Niagara Falls.
True- Angel Falls is around 3,212 feet tall, while Niagara Falls is around 173 feet tall. That actually puts Angel Falls at 18.6 times higher than Niagara Falls.


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