11 Things You Might Not Know About the Grand Canyon

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iStock.com/SumikoPhoto

Whether you’ve made the trek yourself or seen it on a postcard, the Grand Canyon is one of the most instantly recognizable sights in the United States. But how well do you really know the Colorado River’s most famous handiwork? Here are 11 facts about the Grand Canyon, which Congress declared a U.S. National Park on February 26, 1919.

1. The Grand Canyon is not the world's deepest canyon.

Let’s clear up this misconception right off the bat. The Arizona landmark may well be the world’s grandest canyon, but it’s not the deepest. Agreeing on how to measure the depth of gorges is a surprisingly difficult task, but depending on who you ask, that distinction goes to Peru’s Cotahuasi Canyon, which is over 11,000 feet deep, or Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Gorge. The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is just one mile deep.

2. It isn't the deepest canyon in the U.S., either

A view of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
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The Grand Canyon can’t claim the domestic championship: Hells Canyon has been carved by the Snake River along the border of Oregon and Idaho and drops a half a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon.

3. The Grand Canyon's age is tough to pin down.

The Grand Canyon
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Like measuring depth, figuring out a canyon’s age is not as easy as you might think. Until recently, estimates pegged the Grand Canyon’s age at 6 million years. It turns out that the answer may not be that straightforward, though. In the last decade, controversy has erupted in scientific circles over just how many candles should be on the geologic marvel’s birthday cake. Attempts to analyze the minerals within the canyon led to the conclusion that the canyon may be more like 70 million years old.

What makes answering what seems like a simple question so difficult? The Grand Canyon may not have been carved in one fell swoop by the Colorado River. Instead, one hypothesis posits that the canyon may have formed in pieces over time, with parts of it dating back as many as 70 million years, but with the connected canyon we know and love today only emerging in the last 6 million years.

4. The Hopi consider the Grand Canyon to be a gateway to the afterlife.

A view from the rim of the Grand Canyon
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Referred to as Öngtupqa in the Hopi language, the Grand Canyon carries great spiritual significance for the Native American tribe that has long inhabited the region. Upon death, a Hopi is believed to pass westward through the sipapuni, or “place of emergence”—a dome of mineral deposits that sits upstream from the union of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River inside the canyon—on his or her journey into the afterlife.

5. Temperatures vary greatly between the top and bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The sun sets over the Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Point.
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A trek from the peak of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, which stands about 8000 feet above sea level, to its bottom a mile down may see a traveler experience temperature swings of more than 25ºF. Summer highs in the depths of the gorge can exceed 100ºF, and winter lows at the crest can dip to 0ºF.

6. The first Europeans saw the Grand Canyon in 1540.

Ribbon Falls in the Grand Canyon
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

After thousands of years of inhabitation by Native American groups, the Grand Canyon welcomed its first European visitor in the 16th century. Aided by Hopi locals, Spanish conquistador García López de Cárdenas led an exploration of the grounds in 1540, even sending three soldiers down to explore the canyon’s depths. The trek didn’t last very long: The soldiers were overcome by thirst, possibly because the Hopi intentionally safeguarded their valued Colorado River from the travelers’ reach.

7. Subsequent European visitors took their time returning to the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River snakes through the Grand Canyon.
iStock.com/kojihirano

After this initial contact didn’t reveal any great riches in the area, there was little urgency to return on the part of the Spanish. Europeans didn’t make their second visit until 1776, when Spanish priests Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante happened upon the canyon while attempting to find a route from Santa Fe to their Catholic mission in Monterey, California. In the very same year, another Spanish missionary, Francisco Garcés, took in the canyon during a largely unsuccessful attempt to convert the local Havasupai to Christianity.

8. Explorers of European descent didn’t navigate to the bottom of the Grand Canyon until 1869.

A vintage map of Grand Canyon National Park
iStock.com/Pontuse

In 1869, seven years after losing his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War, John Wesley Powell led nine men—including a printer for the Rocky Mountain News, an 18-year-old mule driver and bullwhacker, and Powell’s own brother—on a thousand-mile mission down the Colorado River and its tributaries and through the Grand Canyon. Only six members of the team would complete the expedition, but Powell returned in 1871 with congressional backing and an 11-man team that included scientists. That trip produced the first maps of the Colorado River.

9. Teddy Roosevelt used a loophole to protect the Grand Canyon.

Tourists stand at Mather Point
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Roosevelt needed just one visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903 before he decided that the marvel should be protected. Unfortunately, it was beyond his authority to designate an area as a national park without congressional approval. To sidestep what he predicted would be an uncooperative Congress, Roosevelt took the long way around. In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison had established a forest preserve in the area, and so Roosevelt was able to add considerably more protection in 1906 by using a presidential proclamation to designate the area as the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. Two years later, he declared the area a national monument. The area was safe, but even then, Roosevelt couldn’t get the green light to create the Grand Canyon National Park—formal approval didn’t come until 1919.

10. The Grand Canyon was home to an early "instant photo" business.

The Grand Canyon at sunset
iStock.com/anharris

Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb devoted their lives to photographing natural beauty, and in setting up a studio on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1906, they found a savvy business opportunity as well. From their studio at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, the brothers would snap photographs of tourists as they departed for the canyon’s bottom on mules. When the tourists made their way back up to the rim that evening, the brothers would be ready to sell them developed prints documenting their journey.

11. The Grand Canyon was the site of a grand hoax in 1909.

The Grand Canyon at sunset
iStock.com/IvanKuzmin

On April 5, 1909, the Arizona Gazette detailed the findings of two archaeologists who claimed to have discovered traces of either an ancient Tibetan or Ancient Egyptian civilization in an underground tunnel network within the Grand Canyon. The story of ancient artifacts like copper and gold urns and mummified bodies discovered by two affiliates of the Smithsonian caused quite a stir, but it unraveled quickly. The Smithsonian denied any knowledge of the pair of scientists, and subsequent searches failed to uncover the “nearly inaccessible” cavern the (possibly fictitious) duo claimed to have found. Despite this lack of evidence, the belief that the Smithsonian actually found and covered up this cave of wonder remains persistent among conspiracy theorists.

11 Facts About the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

For more than two centuries, the Library of Congress (LOC) and its staff have served as invaluable resources for American legislators. But their mission isn’t limited to U.S. politics. The Library of Congress catalog includes iconic films, historical documents, and your tweets about lunch. In short, it's a cultural treasure. Here are 11 facts worth knowing about the Washington, D.C.-based establishment.

1. The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest cultural institution.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is America’s oldest federal cultural institution. It was established by the same bill that officially moved the capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. The library was conceived of as a resource available exclusively to members of Congress, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." That remains the case today, though citizens can read books on site or request them at their local library through an interlibrary loan.

2. Thomas Jefferson helped rebuild the Library of Congress catalog after a fire.

Not long after it was established, tragedy struck the Library of Congress: Its contents were destroyed when the Capitol Building was set on fire by British troops during the War of 1812. Approximately 3000 books (mostly law-related) were lost in the blaze, but luckily a friend of Washington D.C. owned a collection that was even bigger. Thomas Jefferson’s personal library comprised well over 6000 volumes, making it the largest library in the country at the time. He agreed to sell all of his books to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Jefferson's contributions significantly expanded the scope of the library, by including books on art, science, and philosophy. (The increased diversity of the collection was a subject of criticism at the time, to which Jefferson responded by saying "there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”) Sadly, the library met with another tragedy when a second fire tore through it on Christmas Eve 1851, burning two-thirds of Jefferson’s contribution.

3. James Madison first proposed the Library of Congress.

Seventeen years prior to the LOC's official formation, James Madison proposed the idea of a special library for Congress. He planted the idea as a Continental Congress member in 1783 when he suggested compiling a list of books to which lawmakers could refer. As president, Madison approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library in 1814.

4. It makes Congress's job a lot easier.

Members of Congress drafting legislation don’t necessarily need to do the nitty-gritty research themselves: There’s a whole team [PDF] of lawyers, librarians, economists, and scientists employed through the Library of Congress to do it for them. Established in 1914, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a legislative department within the LOC responsible for supporting lawmakers through every step of the lawmaking process. Based on what’s asked of them, CRS employees supply House and Senate members with reports, briefings, seminars, presentations, or consultations detailing research on the issue in question. The CRS is currently staffed with 600 analysts. In any given year, a single researcher responds to hundreds of congressional requests.

5. It's the largest library on Earth.

With over 164 million items in its inventory, the LOC is the world’s largest library. In addition to the 38 million books and other printed materials on the premises, the institution contains millions of photographs, recordings, and films. It also houses some record-breaking collections: more maps, comics, newspapers, and phonebooks can each be found there than any other place on Earth. The whole thing is stored on about 838 miles of bookshelves.

6. The Library of Congress contains some surprising items.

The Library of Congress is home to an eclectic collection, with books ranging in size from a tiny copy of “Ole King Cole” to a 5-foot-by-7-foot photo book filled with color images of Bhutan. Some items, like a Gutenberg Bible and a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, feel right at home in the historic library. Others, like Rosa Parks’s peanut butter pancakes recipe, are a bit more unexpected. Additional noteworthy artifacts include Bob Hope’s joke collection, George Gershwin’s piano, and the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was shot.

7. The Library of Congress owns materials from around the world.

The Library of Congress isn’t solely dedicated to American documents. The institution possesses materials acquired from all around the globe, including 3 million items from Asia and 10 million items in the Iberian, Latin American, and Caribbean collections. Over half of the books in their inventory are written in a language other than English. In total, over 460 languages are represented, and their end goal is to eventually have at least one item from every nation. The LOC also maintains overseas offices in New Delhi, India; Cairo, Egypt; Islamabad, Pakistan; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to acquire, catalog, and preserve items that might be hard to access otherwise.

8. It preserves America's most important films.

Since the National Film Preservation Act was passed in 1988, 700 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant films have been selected for the LOC archives. Up to 25 entries are chosen each year by a board of industry professionals, and the only rule is that submissions must be at least 10 years old. Beyond that, they can be anything from beloved comedy blockbusters like Ghostbusters (1984) to health class classics like The Story of Menstruation (1946). Pieces added to the National Film Registry are kept in a climate-controlled storage space where they can theoretically last for centuries.

9. The Library of Congress serves patrons of all abilities.

In 1931 the Library of Congress launched The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Today the service offers free Braille and audio books, either through digital downloads or physical deliveries, to people with visual impairments or other issues that limit their reading abilities. Offerings include a wide array of books and magazines, as well as the world’s largest collection of Braille music. NLS librarians are currently undertaking the painstaking process of scanning every sheet of Braille music onto their computer system. Once that project is complete, the National Library Service’s entire collection will be fully digitized.

10. Only three librarians of Congress have been actual librarians.

When nominating someone to head the largest library in the world, presidents rarely choose actual librarians. They’re more likely to select a scholar, historian, or some other veteran of academia for the job. Of the 14 Librarians of Congress we’ve had, current title-holder Carla Hayden is one of just three to come into the role with prior librarian experience. (She is also the first woman and the first African American to hold the job.) On top of running the world’s largest library, Hayden is also responsible for managing relations with Congress, selecting the Poet Laureate, and overseeing the U.S. Copyright Office.

11. It receives every public tweet you write.

The government isn’t just responsible for cataloging tweets coming out of the White House. In 2010, Twitter agreed to donate every public tweet in its archive to the Library of Congress. That amounts to several hundred million tweets a day. In addition to documenting the rise and fall of #dressgate and live tweets of The Walking Dead, the archive would also act as an invaluable data source for tracking language and societal trends. Unfortunately, that archive isn’t much closer to being completed than the day the deal was announced. The LOC has yet to develop a way to organize the information, and for the past seven years, unprocessed tweets have been have been stored out of sight on a server. There’s still no word on what the next step will be, but that might change with the newest Librarian of Congress. Unlike her predecessor, Carla Hayden is known for taking a digital-forward approach to librarianship.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

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iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

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