Sometimes I think that our planet Earth, named for the Old English word for “dry land” (eorthe), should get a new name. Despite our knowledge that more than 70% of the planet’s surface is ocean—definitely not “dry land”—we still refer to our home by an 8th century description.
The same goes for Earth Day. Since 1970, people around the world have set aside April 22nd of each year to think about protecting the environment. This includes the ocean, as it’s a huge part of Earth’s environment. But the sea often seems to play a background role compared to more terrestrial causes.
What many people forget is that the inspiration for Earth Day came from the ocean. In 1969, a pipe carrying oil from 3,500 feet below the seafloor split off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, spilling some 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean over the course of 10 days—the biggest spill in US history at that point, and still the third-largest. Then, as with the Gulf oil spill, the oil company responsible flubbed its initial attempts to plug up the leak, showing that they had no viable back-up plan in case of an accident, while volunteers led beach cleanups. The thick oil killed thousands of seabirds, along with dolphins, California’s iconic sea lions and elephant seals, and countless fish and invertebrates.
The whole thing was broadcast to the nation’s people, who watched in horror at the harm to the ocean and the shoreline. And thus Earth Day was born. The following year on April 22, 20 million Americans focused on environmental issues for a single day, inspired by the devastation off the coast of Santa Barbara. Now more than 1 billion people participate from countries around the world.
This year’s Earth Day theme is “The Face of Climate Change.” Global warming will certainly have tremendous effects on land. But it’s also important to consider how warming waters and ocean acidification—two major impacts of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—will affect marine wildlife and our own well-being. We must also try to reduce our own impacts on the ocean and the atmosphere any small way we can. It will mean learning new personal habits, such as using less plastic and cutting down on energy use, and working collectively as nations and as a species to keep our spaceship Earth clean and healthy.
And don’t forget to talk about the ocean today, and tell your friends the origin story of Earth Day: just like life, it came from the sea.