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When Was the First Earth Day?

The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970.

Cuyahoga River Fire Nov. 3, 1952. Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library

Firefighters battle a fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga River in 1952. The polluted river caught fire on several occasions between 1936 and 1969, when debris and oil had concentrated on the water's surface and ignited. A blaze in 1969 came at a time of increasing environmental awareness and symbolized years of environmental neglect. Image courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library.

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River on the southern shores of Lake Erie caught on fire as chemicals, oil, and other industrial materials that had oozed into the river somehow ignited. Just a few months before, on January 28, 1969, an oil rig leaked millions of gallons of oil off the coast of Santa Barbara. That same year, reports surfaced that our national symbol, the bald eagle, was rapidly declining as a species due to the chemical DDT, while around the world, whales were being hunted nearly to extinction. These and other incidents caught the attention of the national media and galvanized public awareness of the many environmental insults being hurled at the nation and the planet.

In response to the public outcry, Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson, who served as the Governor of Wisconsin (1958-1962) and in the U.S. Senate (1963-1981), organized a nationwide "teach-in" about environmental issues to take place on April 22, 1970. More than 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 public schools, and 20 million citizens participated—nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population at that time.

This outpouring of grassroots environmental activism marked the first Earth Day—a recognition of the importance of caring for the environment and accepting stewardship responsibility for the nation's resources. It also helped establish a political climate conducive to forming both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on October 3, 1970. 

We like to say that "Every day is Earth Day at NOAA." But ever since April 22, 1970, people the world over take time to recognize the importance of protecting the Earth's natural resources—be they oceanic, atmospheric, terrestrial, or biological—for future generations.