10 Fascinating Facts About Earth Day

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Every year on April 22, trees are planted, litter is cleaned up, and awareness for the issues plaguing the planet are raised. In honor of the holiday, now in its 48th year, we’ve gathered together 10 fascinating facts about Earth Day.

1. EARTH DAY WAS CREATED THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF WISCONSIN SENATOR GAYLORD NELSON.

Senator Gaylord Nelson arrived in Washington in 1963 looking to make the fledgling conservation movement, sparked in part by Rachel Carson’s New York Times Bestseller Silent Spring, a part of the national discourse. After witnessing the aftermath of an oil spill in California in 1969, Nelson doubled down on his commitment to raising environmental awareness. Drawing inspiration from the energetic anti-war movement of the time, he enlisted support from both sides of the political spectrum, and on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born.

2. JOHN F. KENNEDY PLAYED A ROLE IN EARLY EFFORTS TO PROMOTE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION.

In 1963, Gaylord Nelson proposed a "conservation tour" to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, a member of President Kennedy’s "Best and Brightest" cabinet. Schlesinger privately endorsed the idea to the President, while Nelson wrote a direct memo to Kennedy, a bold move for a freshman senator from Wisconsin. Kennedy, however, was incredibly receptive, and on September 24, 1963, JFK embarked on a conservation-themed multi-state tour. The President, accompanied by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, as well as Nelson and a few additional senators, visited 11 states in five days. Nelson was disappointed in the President’s speeches, saying they "didn’t have much sweep or drama to them." In addition, members of the press ignored environmental issues and instead focused their questions on the tense nuclear situation with the Soviet Union. It would be another seven years until Earth Day became a reality.

3. THE FIRST EARTH DAY SAW 20 MILLION AMERICANS TAKE TO THE STREETS.

Children sweeping a city park in New York City on Earth Day, circa 1970s. Getty

The first Earth Day marked a strange combination of boisterous rallies and sober reflection on the state of the planet. Protests, demonstrations, fundraisers, nature walks, speeches, concerts, and every sort of civic gathering imaginable took place at colleges, VFW halls, public squares, and parks across the United States on April 22, 1970. Environmental crusaders found themselves thrust into the limelight, and pop culture icons like poet Allen Ginsberg were asked to speak on behalf of Mother Earth. Some of the more colorful displays of the day included mock trials for polluting objects, like an old Chevrolet, which was sentenced to death by sledgehammer. (The car ultimately survived the beating and was donated to an art class.) In New York City, Earth Day celebrations effectively shut down parts of the city. Twenty thousand people packed into Union Square to see Paul Newman and hear a speech by Mayor John Lindsay, who arrived on an electric bus.

4. THE DATE OF EARTH DAY WAS SPECIFICALLY SELECTED TO MOBILIZE COLLEGE STUDENTS.

To head up the Earth Day project, Senator Nelson enlisted Denis Hayes, then a graduate student at Harvard University. As national coordinator, Hayes recruited a staff of 85 energetic young environmental crusaders and grassroots organizers, along with thousands of field volunteers, in order to promote the fledgling holiday across the nation. The team knew that in order to gain the most traction, college students would need to play a central role, as they did in the Vietnam protests of the era. The date that Hayes selected for the first Earth Day was calculated choice: April 22 on most college campuses falls right between Spring Break and Final Exams.

5. EARTH DAY FACED CRITICISM FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.

According to Grist, the first Earth Day faced staunch opposition from conservative groups like the John Birch Society, who claimed that the event was a thinly veiled attempt to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. In addition to detractors on the far right of the political spectrum, bleeding-heart environmental crusaders weren’t satisfied either. Earth Day, they claimed, simply served as a distraction from the more pressing social issues of the day. Journalist I.F. Stone said, "The country is slipping into a wider war in Southeast Asia and we’re sitting here talking about litterbugs." Critics of the holiday also point to the trend of "greenwashing," an attempt by corporations with poor environmental track records to appear conscientious if only once a year.

6. EARTH DAY SPARKED AN UNPRECEDENTED SLATE OF ENVIRONMENTAL LEGISLATION.

Students assemble a globe on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 1995. Getty

With bipartisan support in Congress and thousands of civic demonstrations across the country, support for environmental reform in 1970 was undeniable. According to the EPA, "Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2500 percent increase over 1969." The 1970s saw the passage of the most comprehensive environmental legislation in U.S. history, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. In addition, just 8 months after the first Earth Day, Richard Nixon approved the creation of a new organization tasked with monitoring the nation’s natural assets: the Environmental Protection Agency.

7. ALTHOUGH IT BEGAN AS AN AMERICAN MOVEMENT, EARTH DAY IS NOW AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON ...

In 1990, Earth Day expanded to include countries and peoples across the globe, with 200 million people in 141 nations getting involved. A decade later, at the turn of the new millennium, Earth Day shed light on the emerging Clean Energy movement and expanded its reach, spreading to 184 countries with the help of 5000 environmental organizations. Global activities included a massive traveling drum chain in Gabon, Africa and an unprecedented gathering of hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. According to Earth Day Network, after 40 years, more than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities, making it the largest secular civic event in the world.

8. ... AND INTERNATIONALLY, IT'S KNOWN AS INTERNATIONAL MOTHER EARTH DAY.

Thai students paint a wall at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok for Earth Day, 2005. Getty

Earth Day is now observed around the world, albeit under a different name: In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate April 22 as International Mother Earth Day. The symbol of Mother Earth serves as a common metaphor and representation of our planet in many countries and cultures. In the United States, the holiday is still commonly referred to as Earth Day.

9. IN 2009, NASA PLANTED A HISTORIC "MOON TREE" TO CELEBRATE EARTH DAY.

During the Apollo 14 moon mission in 1971, astronaut Stuart Roosa brought with him hundreds of tree seeds including Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. Roosa was a former smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service, and he transported the seeds in his personal effects as a tribute to his former employer. Roosa and his seeds orbited the Moon 34 times in the command module Kitty Hawk. Scientists were curious whether or not exposure to the microgravity of space would impact the growth of these seeds when returned to Earth.

The experiment seemed like a lost cause when, during the post-mission decontamination process, the seed canisters broke open and the seeds were thought to be useless. However, most of the tree seeds were still fit for germination and were successfully planted and cultivated. These trees were planted around National Monuments, as well as in sites all over the world. After decades of growing side-by-side with their Earth cousins, the Moon Trees showed no differences at all. On Earth Day 2009, NASA, in partnership with the United States National Arboretum and American Forests, planted a second generation Moon Sycamore on the arboretum’s grounds in Washington, D.C.

10. IN PREPARATION FOR EARTH DAY'S 50TH ANNIVERSARY IN 2020, A NEW ENVIRONMENTAL THEME WILL BE ANNOUNCED EVERY YEAR FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS.

For Earth Day 2016, the environmental theme of choice was trees. The Earth Day Network has announced the ambitious plan to plant 7.8 billion trees over the next five years. Trees are essential tools in the fight for a cleaner, sustainable environment. According to the Earth Day Network, in one year a single acre of mature trees absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide produced by driving the average consumer car 26,000 miles. Nearly 8 billion may seem like a daunting number, but similarly ambitious plantings have been undertaken in the past. Earth Day 2011 saw the planting of over a million new trees in Afghanistan.

The theme for Earth Day 2017 is Environmental and Climate Literacy and seeks to increase knowledge amongst voters and work to advocate for climate laws and policies that will accelerate green technology, jobs, and environmental protection. 

This story originally ran in 2016.

7 Ships That Disappeared Without a Trace

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iStock/stock_colors

There’s something ghoulishly fascinating about a mysterious disappearance, and our vast oceans offer seemingly endless space in which to vanish. The true fate of many of these ships will never be known, but speculation suggests that storms, piracy, mutiny, accidental bombing, and even the attack of a giant squid could be responsible for their vanishings. Below are seven ships that have disappeared without leaving a trace.

1. The Patriot // The disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston (1783–1813) was the daughter of American politician and third vice president of the United States Aaron Burr. Theodosia had a privileged upbringing and a good education, and in 1801 she married wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, who went on to become governor of South Carolina. Sadly, in 1812, Theodosia lost her only son to a fever and she became sick with grief. Desperate for a change of scene, on New Year’s Eve 1812 she boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina to visit her father in New York. It is known that the ship left dock and sailed north, but what happened after that is a mystery. It never arrived in New York, and no trace of the ship or crew was ever found. A number of theories and legends have sprung up around the fate of Theodosia—some claim the ship was attacked by pirates and that she was forced to walk the plank, while others suggest that the Patriot got caught up in the War of 1812 and was sunk accidentally by an enemy ship. Perhaps most fanciful of all is the story put forward by a Karankawa Indian chief, who claimed that he rescued a woman who had washed up on shore after a shipwreck, and that before she died she gifted him her locket—with the name Theodosia inscribed upon it. Whatever the story, it is likely that after more than 200 years we shall never know the real fate of the Patriot and Theodosia Burr Alston.

2. The Merchant Royal // One of the richest shipwrecks never found

The Merchant Royal was tasked with taking treasures from the New World to Spain under the command of one Captain John Limbrey. In 1641 the ship was loaded with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver and a huge amount of precious jewels. As the ship entered the English waters, the weather turned bad, but unfortunately the pumps on board the ship broke and it began to take on water. Its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, with whom it had been sailing in tandem, came to the rescue of the captain and crew but were unable to take any of the cargo. The ship disappeared beneath the waves, somewhere off the coast of Land’s End.

Of course, with such valuable cargo, countless people have attempted to find the wreck, which has become known as the “Eldorado of the seas.” In 2007, it was thought that Odyssey Marine Exploration may have found the wreck after it salvaged 500,000 pieces of gold and silver from a site off the southwestern tip of Great Britain. This was later identified as treasure from a Spanish vessel—meaning that the unimagined riches of the Merchant Royal still await discovery.

3. USS Cyclops // Victim of the Bermuda Triangle?

The USS Cyclops was a huge steel-hulled fuel ship, tasked with carrying coal and other useful supplies for the U.S. Navy in the 1910s. On her final journey, the Cyclops set sail from Rio de Janeiro, with a full load of 10,800 tons of manganese ore and over 300 people on board. On March 4, 1918 the ship was spotted for the last time as it left Barbados and sailed into what we now sometimes call the Bermuda Triangle. The ship seemingly disappeared without a trace, and the case has been seen as especially mysterious since no distress call was made and no bad weather was reported in the region. Theories began to surface (some more imaginative than others) that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, attacked by a giant squid or octopus, or been victim of a violent mutiny. A huge search for the Cyclops was launched with a number of boats and planes scouring the area for debris or survivors, but nothing of the enormous ship was ever seen again.

4. The Witchcraft // The “unsinkable” luxury yacht

On December 22, 1967, experienced yachtsman Dan Burack and his friend, Father Patrick Horgan, set sail in the 23-foot luxury yacht Witchcraft to see the holiday lights off the coast of Miami. Unfortunately after just one mile the pair experienced difficulty when it seemed as if the yacht had hit something. Burack calmly called the Miami Coast Guard to report the trouble and request assistance. The official who took the call later commented that Burack seemed unconcerned—perhaps because the yacht was fitted with a special flotation device that was supposed to make the vessel unsinkable. The Coast Guard arrived at the scene just 19 minutes after the call, and were surprised to find no trace of the large yacht, no debris, and no sign of Burack or Horgan. Over the next six days, hundreds of square miles of ocean were searched, but nothing was ever found, and the Witchcraft has been chalked up as another vessel mysteriously lost to the Bermuda Triangle.

5. Andrea Gail // Lost in the “perfect storm”

The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long-liner boat that fished in the North Atlantic for swordfish. In September 1991 the ship, along with several other fishing vessels, set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts for the last fishing session of the season. By October, the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew was out off the coast of Newfoundland when the confluence of terrible weather fronts conspired to create what has been dubbed “the perfect storm.” The massively powerful winds were whipping waves as high as 100 feet, and any ship caught in their path faced being sucked into the wave and flipped over repeatedly. The devastating storm battered the coast of New England and Canada, and after the worst of it had passed and the Andrea Gail had failed to return to port, a number of rescue missions set out to find the ship—but nothing was ever found. The story of the storm and the imagined fate of the Andrea Gail and her crew was later told in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, as well as a Hollywood movie of the same name.

6. The USS Porpoise // Caught in a typhoon

USS Porpoise was a brig involved in 19th century exploration and surveying missions, taking part in a voyage in 1838 that confirmed the existence of Antarctica and later circumnavigating the globe. In 1854 the ship set sail from Hong Kong carrying 69 men in order to carry out a survey of the South Sea Islands. Somewhere between China and Taiwan, the ship sailed into dense fog and was separated from its partner ship, the USS Vincennes, and never seen again. Many ships searched for the ill-fated brig for over a year, but no sign was ever found, and it's thought to have been wrecked in a typhoon with all hands lost.

7. HMS Sappho // Presumed Wrecked Off Australian Coast

Over the course of a 20-year career, the British Navy ship HMS Sappho worked to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa, intercepting a number of ships loaded with slaves and freeing hundreds of people. In 1857, after wrongly chasing down and boarding an American ship—an event that caused something of a diplomatic crisis between America and Great Britain—the ship was ordered to set sail to Australia. The Sappho reached Cape Town without incident, and from there headed toward the Bass Strait, where it was last spotted by a passing brig on February 18, 1878. Bad weather was reported in the area, and it has been assumed that high winds caused the ship to founder and sink. No sign of the 147 crewmembers was ever found, but rumors abounded that the captain, Fairfax Moresby, had somehow escaped the wreck and made it to an island off Australia, where he was said to have lost his mind.

Bonus: Baychimo // Arctic ghost ship

The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
Mysterious Disappearances, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The SS Baychimo started life as a German trading vessel before being given to Great Britain after World War I as part of reparations. The Baychimo came under the ownership of the Hudson Bay Company, and made many voyages across the Atlantic from Scotland to Canada to trade with local Inuit tribes. In 1931, while journeying to Vancouver with a cargo of furs, the Baychimo fell victim to an early winter, as ice floes surrounded the ship and locked it in an icy embrace. The crew escaped the stricken vessel and fled across the ice floes to safety, but some returned a few days later to try to rescue the ship and its valuable cargo.

After over a month of braving the treacherous weather in a flimsy camp, a huge blizzard hit and the remaining crew lost sight of the ship. Once the storm had cleared, the watching crew were surprised to find the Baychimo had disappeared. They assumed it had sunk without trace. A week later the ship was spotted by an Inuit hunter and the crew raced back on board to gather as much of the cargo as possible. The captain decided the ship was too badly damaged to be seaworthy and so abandoned it, thinking it would soon break apart. How wrong he was. Over the years, the Baychimo was sighted a number of times, sometimes caught fast in ice, other times floating ghost-like through the Arctic waters. The last confirmed sighting was in 1969—an astonishing 37 years after it had been abandoned to its fate.

This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

5 Terrifyingly Huge Spiders

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iStock/clauselsted

This week, woman in Tasmania came upon a massive huntsman spider devouring a pygmy possum at a lodge in the island's Mount Field National Park. The alarmingly huge arachnid was at least the size of a grown man's hand, and it's not the only giant spider out there. The enormous spiders below can’t be dispatched by a shoe or a rolled-up newspaper. They're sure to give you nightmares—even if you're not an arachnophobe.

1. Poecilotheria rajaei

Poecilotheria rajaei, a huge spider native to Sri Lanka
Ranil Nanayakkara/British Tarantula Society, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

This species of tarantula, discovered in northern Sri Lanka in 2013, has a leg span of 8 inches. That's roughly the size of your face! It’s part of an arboreal group called tiger spiders, which are indigenous to India and Sri Lanka. A dead male specimen of P. rajaei—which is distinguished from other tiger spiders by the markings on its legs and abdomen—was first presented to scientists in October 2009 by a local villager; a survey of the area revealed enough females and juveniles that scientists are confident they've found a new species. “They are quite rare,” Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Education and Research, told WIRED. “They prefer well-established old trees, but due to deforestation the number have dwindled and due to lack of suitable habitat they enter old buildings.” P. rajaei was named after a police officer who helped scientists navigate the area where it was found.

2. Theraphosa blondi

A Goliath bird-eating spider
universoaracnido, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Though Theraphosa blondi is called the Goliath bird-eating spider, it doesn’t actually eat birds. Reportedly, it got its name when an explorer saw it eating a hummingbird, but like other tarantulas, its diet consists mainly of insects, frogs, and rodents. But we’ll forgive you if you’re not comforted by that fact. After all, this spider can have a leg span nearly a foot across—the size of a dinner plate—and weigh up to 6 ounces, making it the largest spider in the world by mass. Its fangs, up to an inch long, can break human skin. (Though venomous, its poison won't bring down a human.) Native to South America, the spider makes noise by rubbing the bristles on its legs together; the sound can be heard up to 15 feet away.

3. Heteropoda maxima

A Heteropoda maxima spider
Petra & Wilifried, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yet another reason to avoid dark caverns: Discovered in a cave in Laos in 2011, the giant huntsman spider has a leg span of 12 inches. It’s just one of over 1000 species of huntsman spider. These speedy arachnids can chase down their prey with ease and have legs that extend forward, like a crab’s.

4. Golden silk orb-weavers

These arachnids, of the genus Nephila, have a fearsome relative: the largest fossilized spider ever found is an ancestor. Females of this group of spiders, which are found around the world, can have leg spans up to 6 inches (the males are smaller). Though these orb-weavers typically eat large insects, in Australia, some of these spiders have been snapped eating snakes and birds that got caught in their strong, 5-foot-diameter webs.

5. Phoneutria nigriventer

Sure, Phoneutria nigriventer's nearly 6-inch leg span is scary—but there's something else about this spider that makes it even more terrifying: its venom, a neurotoxin that can be fatal to humans. In fact, along with P. fera, this spider is the most toxic on Earth (thankfully, a good antivenom exists). Native to Central and South America, P. nigriventer is also called the Brazilian wandering spider, for its tendency to roam the forest at night, and the banana spider, both because it hides in banana plants during the day and sometimes stows away in shipments of the fruit. When threatened, the spider lifts its front two pairs of legs and sways side to side, as you can see in the video above.

This story originally appeared in 2013.

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