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Earth Day 50 Years Later

Posted on Tue, April 21, 2020
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This month, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Unlike in previous years, when we could come together in public spaces to express concern about climate change, this year we will have to commemorate in physical isolation. But celebrating this planet and this anniversary, even joining each other virtually, is something that we can and must do. One way is to join the Smithsonian’s online Earth Optimism Summit April 22-25.

When Apollo 8 first came around the far side of the Moon to behold the tiny blue marble of Earth rising above the bleak, grey lunar surface, the astronauts exclaimed at the sight. Luckily, they grabbed a camera, and took the iconic “Earthrise” image that helped to start the environmental movement. 

Photo of the Earth rising in the sky with the Moon in the foreground

Since the 1960s, observations from aircraft and spacecraft have helped us understand Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land surfaces. They have measured changes in how our planet works and how we use our planet and have documented the rising temperatures and seas caused by anthropogenic climate change. In recent years, satellites have documented increasingly powerful storms, droughts in some places and too much rain in others, and melting Arctic ice — all signs of rising global temperatures. Each month, agencies from around the world release evidence of an ever-warming world. Even our current situation has elevated conversations about climate’s impact on global health risks. The climate crisis is truly upon us.

But with the anniversary of the first Earth Day, we are celebrating human action fifty years ago that helped change our world for the better. I witnessed this firsthand growing up in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where the environmental movement spurred changes that healed dying rivers and lakes. Humans can cause harm to this planet, but they can fix it too. 

So how do we respond to a climate crisis? First, we continue to collect the data that helps us understand our planet. These data not only help us measure and model the effects of climate change, they help us respond to it. NASA satellite data is helping farmers manage water use, helping monitor and manage food resources, and aiding in identifying coastal assets at risk. The SERVIR partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development and NASA helps developing countries around the world utilize data to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

There are things we as individuals can do as well. When the environmental movement called on us to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” they meant it as a hierarchy, not three equal options. These months at home have made me realize how much less I can do with and how I can repurpose what I have. We do have the ability to change the world, we just have to all participate.

A photograph of Kelly with a view of the Earth in the background.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly looks at Earth from the International Space Station cupola.

Astronauts often describe “The Overview Effect,” the profound understanding that we all live together on this unique, beautiful spaceship Earth. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, please spend a few minutes watching the Earth go by under the International Space Station . Celebrate our beautiful planet, and then be part of the solution to ensure its healthy future.

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