We’re all members of Civilization Earth. Yet how often do we stop to consider what it means to live on this pale blue dot, as the famed astronomer Carl Sagan once put it?
If you’re like most people, including me, the answer is “not all that often.” This is a shame, though, because our home is vast, beautiful, and completely amazing. It’s time we gave our world a little more thought, and not just because environmentalism is more important today than ever before.
Also because, why not? To that end, here are 20 weird and interesting facts to share next time you’re teaching a class or surprising your friends!
1. Earth’s Name Is Unique
Again, because we’re used to hearing it all the time, the Earth’s name might not appear all that unique to us. However, its etymology is unusual.
Why? Because the other planets in our solar system are all named after Roman gods. Think Mars (the god of war), Venus (the goddess of love), Mercury (the messenger of the gods) and Jupiter (king of the gods).
Earth, on the other hand, hails not from Latin but from Old English, eorthe. Old English is a root language for both German and Modern English, so you can see this similarity in today’s German word for Earth, Erde.
That’s not to say other languages don’t have their own names for our planet. In French, it is Terre, while the Spanish is Tierra. You can see the Romance language inspiration if you look at the Latin name for Earth, which was Terra Mater, or “Mother Earth.”
2. The Globe Isn’t Round
No, I’m not saying the Earth is flat. I attended first grade, don’t worry. But despite what every classroom globe around the world would have us believe, the Earth really isn’t entirely round.
“While the Earth appears to be round when viewed from the vantage point of space, it is actually closer to an ellipsoid,” says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “However, even an ellipsoid does not adequately describe the Earth’s unique and ever-changing shape.”
Why? Many reasons, including:
- The centrifugal force of Earth’s rotation makes it fatter at the equator than poles.
- Mountains and sea trenches distort its perfect “roundness.”
- Variations in its gravitational field, according to the above source, “cause permanent hills and valleys in the ocean’s surface of over 300 feet relative to an ellipsoid.”
Take that, Round Earthers!
3. Our Planet Used to Have Only One Continent
Today, we have seven continents. But that wasn’t always the case.
If you, like me, also attended elementary school, then you’ll probably remember that Earth’s continents used to be a single mass. Cast your memory back to 6th grade, and you’ll likely remember that this supercontinent was known as Pangaea.
4. … and Pangaea Wasn’t the Only One
While we’re only taught about the one supercontinent, there were actually more than that. In fact, it’s happened at least three times in Earth’s history!
How can we tell this is true? By looking at the fossil record. When certain layers of rock, called “strata,” share the same fossils, we know that they used to be next to one another. This is how, for instance, we know that Africa and South America used to be snugglier than two spoons in a drawer.
5. We Can Simulate Mars on Earth
Going to Mars is a long-held dream of many Earthlings, but it’s going to be challenging. We can better prepare for those challenges with a Mars-like setting … but where do we find one on Earth?
Turns out, the Atacama Desert is a pretty great candidate. The world’s oldest and driest desert, it’s been the center of Mars operations on Earth for decades now. This is due to extreme dryness, high salinity, and oxidizing soils. In other words, soils that rust – just like on Mars, giving it that red color.
6. The Wettest Place on Earth Is in India
With 467 inches of rainfall a year (like, whoa), India’s village of Mawsynram is the wettest place on Earth. It’s so vibrantly damp there that it can support amazing structures such as living bridges.
7. The Hottest Place on Earth Surprises No One
All right, you saw this one coming. Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth. What might surprise you more is the fact that it is also the lowest elevation point in America. Other surprising facts include its proclivity for wildflowers and the fact that its rocks can move on their own.
8. Earth Is a Currently an “Icehouse”
While we hear lots about greenhouse gases, Earth has been much hotter before. Throughout Earth’s history, it has spent the majority of its time without polar icecaps, as Greenhouse Earth.
As the Geological Society puts it, “The proportion of true ‘glacial’ time (even if mostly essentially unipolar) in the last 100 million years, however, may be taken as about one-third.” In other words, only about a third of the time in that period has Earth seen frozen water.
The rest of the time, sea levels were much higher and only water and land existed at the poles. Our comparatively cool climate today is in danger of getting too warm due to human activity, but it’s still much cooler than it has been.
When the climate has ice caps and a cool average temperature, we call it Icehouse Earth.
9. Icehouse Earth Gets REAL Cold
Compared to its greenhouse-y past, Earth can get very cold today. Air on the Eastern Antarctic Plateau can reach -94 Celsius or -137 Fahrenheit, and it’s far from the only place that would make you shiver.
10. The Atmosphere Used to Be Toxic
That’s right: Earth was once completely hostile to multicellular life. For more than 2 billion years of its early life, Earth was incapable of supporting today’s organisms due to the lack of oxygen in its oceans and atmosphere.
Then the cyanobacteria evolved. These amazing little organisms photosynthesized sunlight and used water as an energy source. They released oxygen into their oceanic home as a byproduct of these activities.
Over time, the water could no longer hold enough oxygen. It then escaped to the air, where it formed today’s hospitable atmosphere.
11. Earth May Have Been Purple in the Distant Past
According to a microbial geneticist from the University of Maryland, it’s thought that Earth may have once been purple in hue. Due to ancient microbes and the formation of the Earth, other molecules besides chlorophyll may have been used.
This may have helped to harness the rays from the sun while projecting a violet hue on all life on Earth.
12. Earth’s Magnetosphere Helps Some Animals Navigate
Chances are good you already know that animals have a variety of migratory tools in their genetic toolkits. They can navigate by sunlight, moonlight and starlight, for instance.
But did you know some animals can navigate by magnetism alone? In their book Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology, authors Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili discuss that the robin may actually be able to see Earth’s magnetosphere.
How crazy is that?
13. It’s the Largest Terrestrial Planet
However, we beat Venus out only narrowly. The Morning Star – nicknamed for its appearance in the morning and evening skies – is about 7,521 miles or 12,104 kilometers across. Earth is only 7,926 miles or 12,756 kilometers.
Whew, that was close.
14. Earth Sits in the Goldilocks Zone
The Goldilocks Zone is the distance from the sun that is neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right” for the species on our Earth to develop. More specifically, it’s the right distance for water to remain liquid, neither boiling off nor freezing.
15. It May Lead Us Astray When Looking for Intelligent Life
Many scientists think the search for intelligent life in the galaxy should start with the Goldilocks Zones of other stars. This “circumstellar habitable zone” is a good place to start if we hope to find alien species with roughly the same physical needs as we have.
The thing about the Goldilocks Zone is, it’s the right distance for water-based lifeforms on our planet. However, some researchers argue that this will cause us to miss a variety of lifeforms that may have different needs.
16. Earth Is Bigger Than Any Moon in the Solar System
Although Jupiter and Saturn have some pretty bumpin’ moons, they don’t outclass Earth. Neither are they bigger than Venus or Mars. A couple of Jupiter’s moons – namely Ganymede and Titan – are bigger than Mercury, though.
17. The South Pole Is Colder Than the North Pole
If you subtract seasonal variations throughout the year, the North and South Poles get the same amount of sunlight. Weirdly, though, the South is a lot colder than the North.
There are a few reasons for this:
- The Arctic is mostly ocean, which is surrounded by land. The ocean retains a more even temperature, making this part of the globe warmer compared to its glacial counterpart in the Antarctic.
- Antarctica is a landmass, which means it has elevation. A lot of that elevation is pretty darn high. As in, mountains … and we all know how cold those are.
- The South Pole is very dry. Since moisture helps insulate, a drier environment is likely to be a colder one.
18. Our Calendar Will Never Match Reality … But Caesar Tried
Earth takes 24 hours to spin on its axis, which is what determines the length of the day-night cycle on our planet. It takes 365.2422 days to make one trip around the sun, leaving us with a bit of a calendar problem. What do we do with that extra quarter of a day?
If you just said “Leap Year,” then gold star. Julius Caesar invented this concept back in 46 BC to try and account for the difference, adding an extra day to February every 4 years. Even that didn’t work, though.
As Nat Geo explains, “The small difference between 365.25 and 365.2422 made each calendar year about 11 minutes shorter than the seasonal calendar, so the calendar was an entire day short every 128 years.” Hence, the seasons started drifting … bummer.
To fix this, Pope Gregory updated the calendar in 1582, dropping a leap year every 400 years to make sure the seasons stayed synced up. So far, it’s working.
19. Days Get Longer and Shorter
The moon is a bossy child, and her tidal gravity has effects on the Earth. The same goes for the interior vs exterior of Earth and differentials between the poles and equator. All of these aspects can cause the planet to spin faster or slower, shortening or lengthening our days.
In fact, a couple billion years ago, the day-night cycle on Earth was only 19 hours. Now atomic clocks are telling us that the days speed up and slow down regularly.
With that, I’m hoping you’ll have even more love for this little blue marble we call our home!