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Happy 50th Birthday, Earth Day!

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This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

Jenny Motter, Art Director for NASA Science, was inspired by Landsat imagery, river deltas, and geologist James Hutton to create NASA’s Earth Day 2020 poster.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day and called for more protection for our planet.  The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) had brought environmental problems to the public consciousness, and then Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea to unite everyone in a common cause with rallies across the nation.  There were already groups fighting for various individual causes, but by bringing them all together in one movement, Earth Day was born.  Offshoots of Carson’s book and that first Earth Day were the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

There were plans around the globe to celebrate the 50th birthday of Earth Day on April 22 with the theme ‘climate action.’  However, with the worldwide spread of Covid-19, the highly infectious coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China, events have been canceled and new ones have gone digital for the first time.

The Science, Technology, and Business division is leading an Earth Day 2020 web archiving project to take snapshots on how communities across the United States will be celebrating the occasion online from their homes. The purpose is to create a collection that documents actions and activities organized by U.S. environmental groups; scientific societies and associations; college campuses; city, state, and federal government; and notable environmental activists and artists. What are the messages for Earth Day 2020?  Are there any notable patterns or themes across the U.S.?

With people all over the world staying home to ‘stop the spread,’ the planet has had a chance to breathe.  NASA Earth Observatory satellite images early on showed how the yellow clouds of nitrogen dioxide (the gas produced from motor vehicle traffic, industrial facilities, and power plants) had cleared over Beijing and further away.  That same effect was visible across metropolitan areas of the United States affected by the virus—Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta.  Over New York City, pollution was reduced nearly 50% compared to March of last year.

On the 25th anniversary in 1995, Senator Nelson stated, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity…that’s all there is.  …These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.” We can continue to carry on his vision, despite the terrible pandemic.  Those of us who can go outside (keeping our distance from others), can enjoy the fresh air and the sights and sounds of nature that we may have been too busy to appreciate in our normally busy pace of life.

Once the pandemic has receded and the economies of the world are back up to speed, pollution will accompany the change.  But perhaps this pause will motivate a renewal of Senator Nelson’s vision.  We have seen the incredible creativity, ingenuity, and banding together of citizens to solve problems and help the cause during the pandemic.  Maybe this dedication could be harnessed to help save the Earth.


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