The Atlantic Wrongly Calls California Largest State

March 21, 2015 - The Atlantic's editorial staff seems to be geographically challenged. The headline of a March 21 article is "The Economics of California's Drought," and has the unfortunate subhead of "What happens when the country's largest state runs low on water?" And there's the problem.

The article's author, Matt Schiavenza, might have meant to call California "the country's most populous state," but that's not what was written. Perhaps he meant to say, "the state with the country's largest population," but he didn't write that either.

Misleading subtitle in The Atlantic Wire
To be fair, headlines are often not written by the author but by an editor. Regardless of who writes them, headlines should not be vague, ambiguous or confusing.

In any case, the subtitle calls California "the country's largest state." Without qualifying that, by specifying population, it is misleading and unclear at best.

California has a lot more people than Texas and Alaska combined. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 Demographic Profile:

California had a population of 37,253,956 (ranked 1st).

Texas had a population of 25,145,561 (ranked 2nd).

Alaska had a population of 710,231 (ranked 47th).

But although California may have the biggest population of the 50 states, but in terms of geographic size it ranks third, behind Alaska and Texas. The U.S. Census Bureau says that the three largest states in 2008, by total area, were as follows:

Alaska had a total area of 664,988 sq. miles (ranked 1st)
Texas had a total area of 268,597 sq. miles (ranked 2nd)
California;had a total area of 163,694 sq. miles (ranked 3rd)

Alaska is waaaaay bigger than California
California was clearly a distant third in terms of size as recently as 2008. I strongly suspect that the total land areas of have not changed enough to have altered these states' size rankings. And to repeat myself, "largest state" and "largest population" are two very different things.

Of course, Schiavenza was writing about the water crisis in California, not about the size of the state. But he referred to another article with some probably-unintentional irony. "Earlier this month," he wrote, "the title of a Los Angeles Times op-ed published by Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine, got right to the point: California would run out of water in a year. This headline—as Famiglietti himself pointed out—isn't exactly accurate."

Irony: Schiavenza's headline "isn't exactly accurate." And Schiavenza should know that LA Times op-ed was not "published by Jay Famiglietti." He wrote it. The LA Times published it.

Also See:
States Ranked by Size and Population