Contest Answer: What Was That Yellow Object?

Last week, we asked you to identify the object in this picture:


Among the answers: “a computer chip under a microscope”; “a package of Kraft cheese slices carefully sculpted”; and, courtesy of a reader named Schantz, “That’s the temple I see myself standing on in my dream, only in the dream, I’m wearing sort of sun-god robes with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at me.”

But no. The photo, as many of you did properly identify, was an aerial view of a stair-stepped stockpile of sulfur at an Athabasca oil sands mining facility. It was taken by Nathan Myhrvold and described in SuperFreakonomics as a place that Myhrvold thought might be an appropriate base station for his Stratoshield operation:

One of the most plentiful waste components is sulfur, which commands such a low price that oil companies simply stockpile it. “There were big yellow mountains of it, like a hundred meters high by a thousand meters wide!” says Myhrvold. “And they stair-step them, like a Mexican pyramid. So you could put one little pumping facility up there, and with one corner of one of those sulfur mountains, you could solve the whole global warming problem for the Northern Hemisphere.”

Here’s a wider view to give you some context:


The first person to answer correctly was Robert McCarrick, the fourth commenter, just 13 minutes into the contest. Congratulations. Robert will get a piece of Freakonomics schwag for his work.


You know that the sun-god quote's from "Real Genius", right? If not, you should go watch it immediately. Val Kilmer, 1980something.

Jon Webb

Note that pumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere may counter some of the effects of global climate change, by increasing the reflectivity of the Earth, but it definitely won't counter all of the effects of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For example, the oceans will still become more acid. And simulations show the weather patterns still change in undesirable ways -- see for example


I'd prefer that we leave global warming alone, if we're causing warming at all.

If I'm vacationing, I'd rather go to Florida than Alaska.


Leave it to the much maligned Private Sector to offer a simple low priced solution to G.W. Al Gore! Pleeassse go away now!


congrats to Robert, but what about Joel the tenth commenter, he was spot on.
i think you should cut the t-shirt in half and they both win


GLK - Um, has the private sector done anything about it yet? Wait - this is like the EMH - there is no dollar on the ground, because if there was one there, someone would have already picked it up. And, this doesn't account for unintended consequences, which an economic naturalist should be very curious about...


Amy, thank you. I couldn't place that quote and it was driving me crazy. I love that movie.


I wasn't attempting to pass that "sun-god" quote off as my own, btw. As Amy noted, it's from Real Genius. I couldn't say if the words themselves were ad-libbed or if they were written in the script, so credit goes to either Val Kilmer or one of the writers (Neal Israel, Pat Proft, or Peter Torokve). I figured it was common knowledge, but a brief office survey I just conducted proved otherwise. I apologize for not quoting the first time around.


I'm so, so ashamed to be a Canadian. Sorry about what we're doing out there.


lot's of opinions, and clearly they are just that, opinions. It's obvious no one commenting has a clue.
But that's people for you... spouting the gospel, and not even knowing it's not true.
As a Famous Mr. Gump once said: Stupid is as stupid does, for an example, read some really uninformed comments from the rocket scientists in the U.K.


I have a question it doesn't really relate to this but i had to put it under something. I was wondering if kid the read the bible at a young age do better in English writing and comprehension. Let me explain how i came up with this, i was thinking about all the people at my school and how they try to tell you what the Bible is say in this passage and what this mean to them. At and early age if you were shown this before you go to school, because you went to church. Do you think the that kid would do better in English class.

Fellow Canadian

@ #10 (jay) Whay are you ashamed? The oilsands help keep our country strong and contribute billions to the economy each year through royalties, employment and exports. Unfortunately the products of oilsands are 10-15% more carbon-intensive on a lifecycle basis than more conventional petroleum, but that is improving as we speak. Sulphur piles are not exlusive to oilsands operations, and are common in many industries.

Sadly the oilsands are the "cause du jour" for the environmentalists, but rest assured there are much bigger and badder things going on in the world that they will be focusing on soon enough.

In the meantime I am proud to be Canadian.


Please explain: "... you could put one little pumping facility up there, and with one corner of one of those sulfur mountains, you could solve the whole global warming problem for the Northern Hemisphere."

How is sulfur used for energy?


My friend just reminded me of the value of sulfur. There probably isn't a chigger for miles.