I am working on an educational resource about the relative scales of resources compared to the earth. Attached is an example of the earth compared to various elements contained within, as well as a comparison of the sum of all water and the atmospheric gasses (at standard temperature and pressure). Such images are great for creating a sense of scale and displaying the fragility if earth's ecosystems.

I want to also include spheres of wet biomass, which I would imagine to be quite small. However, when I do math I am faced with spheres that seem too small. I did the math based on 3 methods and got answers of 6km to 14km diameter, based on Metric Ton estimates of 1.57E+12, 1.38E+11, 1.00E+12

Two folks on Quora estimate 10km diameter. My questions are these:

  1. What is the appx wet biomass of all plant and animal life on earth?
  2. What is the appx density of it such that it can be converted to volume?
  3. Is it really so small? I am used to being humbled, but this seems excessive. :-)

Figure 3. Size ratios of the deposits of different elements on earth. The air of the atmosphere would fill a ''balloon'' of 2000 km diameter, all water on earth a drop of 1400 km. Copper would have a diameter of 500 km and gold of 53 km. Illustration: Schmidt/ID Kommunikation. The Resource‐Energy Nexus as a Key Factor for Circular Economy - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Size-ratios-of-the-deposits-of-different-elements-on-earth-The-air-of-the-atmosphere_fig2_354557045 [accessed 26 Jul, 2023]

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    $\begingroup$ No need to be humbled. If you think about most life exists in a very thin layer about 150 m thick (about the max height for of the tallest tree species (~120 m), and about as deep as roots penetrate (~25 m)) on the surface of the planet. There's very little biomass that we know of much below the surface or up in the air. $\endgroup$
    – bob1
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ I would be so sad if you made this calculation based on plants and animals alone. Bacteria make up the Second largest component of earth's biomass at ~70 Gt C (~15% of total biomass), mostly in the deep subsurface. Then Fungi (12 Gt C), Archaea (7 Gt C), Protists (4), and finally Animals (~2.5Gt C). Animals are barely more than a rounding error. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6016768 $\endgroup$
    – MikeyC
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 15:06

1 Answer 1


The following calculation is a very rough estimation to get the sensible order of magnitude.

In 2018, Bar-On et al. estimated the total biomass on Earth at about 550 billion tonnes $(5.5\times 10^{14} \, {\rm kg})$ of carbon, $80 \,\%$ of which is stored in plants. $70 \,\%$ of this plant biomass are stems and tree trunks, which are mostly woody.

Let's assume that the whole biomass is in the wood. The authors suggest that the carbon content should be multiplied by a factor of 2 to get the dry biomass. Assuming that the average water content of wood is $80 \,\%$. This gives us the total wet biomass of $$m=2\times(1/80 \,\%) \times 5.5\times 10^{14} \, {\rm kg} = 1.4 \times 10^{15}\,{\rm kg}$$

Approximating the density of wood at $800 \, {\rm kg/m^3}$, we calculate the diameter of equivalent sphere:

$$ V = \frac{4\pi}{3}\left(\frac{D}{2}\right)^3 \implies D = \left(\frac{6}{\pi} V\right)^{1/3} = \left(\frac{6}{\pi} \frac{m}{\rho}\right)^{1/3} = 15 \, {\rm km}$$

Even though we made quite a few assumptions, note that the diameter of sphere scales with mass as $D \sim m^{1/3}$. This means that if we over- or underestimated the total wet biomass by a factor of 2, the diameter of the sphere changes only by a factor of $2^{1/3}\approx 1.26$, e.g. $D \approx (12-19)\, {\rm km}$.

There is also another interesting visualization published, although it uses the carbon biomass and not wet biomass.

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    $\begingroup$ Beware: The article estimated the biomass as 550 gigatons of carbon. However, biomass is not just carbon. As noted in the methodology of the paper, you can multiply the estimate by a factor of 2 to get dry mass; still, the OP is asking for wet biomass. $\endgroup$
    – Domen
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ thanks, yeah i saw that and i was too hurried to account for it, i just corrected it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I appreciate the help. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ @bandybabboon, I have edited your answer to more clearly state all the assumptions and include calculations. I hope you feel that my edit improves your answer, but you may of course reject it :) $\endgroup$
    – Domen
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 21:32

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