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8 Extreme Weather Events As Seen From Space

Most of us have seen at least one extreme weather event in our lives. But no matter how things look from the ground, these events look drastically different, even surprisingly peaceful, from above. Here are some of the biggest weather events of the last few decades, as seen from space.

1. Hurricane Katrina

Most of us remember the severe devastation Hurricane Katrina (top image) caused, and it’s easy to see why the storm presented so many problems when seen from above—the arms of the hurricane expanded across most of the Gulf of Mexico. When this image was taken on August 28, 2005, winds in the storm were recorded traveling at about 160 mph.

Katrina was not only one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history—it was also the most expensive natural disaster in the country's history, causing more than $108 billion in damages.

2. Superstorm Sandy

Just last year, the Floss headquarters was closed for weeks thanks to this massive hurricane that caused over $75 billion in damage. 

3. Ireland and Britain’s Winter of 2009-2010

While not due to one storm in particular, the winter of 2009 through 2010 was unusually cold throughout Europe, earning the season the title of “The Big Freeze.” This satellite image from January 7, 2010 shows the extent of snow covering over England and Scotland.

4. Snowmageddon

Europe wasn’t the only area hit hard by winter that season. On February 5, 2010, the North Atlantic coast was hit by a category 3 (major) blizzard. Up to 35 inches of snow was dropped on the East Coast of the U.S. The area was already suffering from the effects of a blizzard that had occurred in December, and when another category 3 blizzard happened only a few days later, bringing another 20 inches of snow, the media began pronouncing the event “snowpocalypse,” “snoverkill” and “snowmageggon.” Catchy nicknames aside, the storms resulted in the snowiest winter on record for much of the Mid-Atlantic, which is easy to imagine given how much snow is visible in this satellite image taken on February 11.

5. Cyclone Gafilo

While it might not be as famous as many of the other storms on this list, 2004’s Cyclone Gafilo is the most intense cyclone to ever form in the south-western Indian Ocean and the strongest cyclone to strike Madagascar. With winds reaching over 185 miles per hour, the storm caused more than $250 million in damages and resulted in 172 deaths.

This image shows the cyclone on March 6, after it reached peak speed and was about to strike northwest Madagascar.

6. 2009's Australian Sandstorm

When someone says “extreme weather,” you probably think of wet conditions, but when high winds hit sand, they can result in massive dust storms that can be just as intense as a blizzard. In September of 2009, a dust storm hit Eastern Australia, sweeping dirt and debris across New South Wales and Queensland. Typically, air particle concentrations register at 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air. During bushfires, the air particle concentration raises to about 500 micrograms per cubic meter. So you can imagine how concentrated the dust must have been for the air concentration levels to reach 15,400 during the storm. It’s been estimated that the storm carried over 16 million tons of dust from the desert to the coast, at a peak level of 75,000 tons per hour.

7. 2003 Firestorm

Many would hesitate to call wildfires a weather event, but in most cases, weather is at least partially responsible. This was definitely the case in the California wildfires of October 2003, where over 15 wildfires broke out throughout Southern California and Baja, Mexico. I was in San Diego when the fires first broke out and there was so much thick, white ash in the air that even 20 miles from the fires, it looked like the roads were covered in snow.

8. 2007 Wildfires

I was also present for the 2007 California wildfires, which were a result of many of the same weather conditions as the 2003 fires, which have become a seasonal problem for the region.

Were any of you witness to these events, or do you have any extreme weather stories of your own? While everyone loves a good story, you might consider yourself lucky if your answer is “no” this time.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Live Smarter
All National Parks Are Offering Free Admission on April 21
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Looking for something to do this weekend that's both outdoorsy and free? To kick off National Park Week, you can visit any one of the National Park Service's more than 400 parks on April 21, 2018 for free.

While the majority of the NPS's parks are free year-round, they'll be waiving admission fees to the more than 100 parks that normally require an entrance fee. Which means that you can pay a visit to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, or Yellowstone National Parks without reaching for your wallet. The timing couldn't be better, as many of the country's most popular parks will be increasing their entrance fees beginning in June.

The National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, maintains 417 designated NPS areas that span more than 84 million acres across every state, plus Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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