Written by Sarah Fecht; Illustrated by Sunghee Kim; Animated by Jeremy Hinsdale
Earth Day is a time to celebrate the natural world. Not only does nature have intrinsic value, but it also does a lot of work that can make our lives easier. Plus, as beings that evolved in wild environments, we are just hard-wired to enjoy it — the sights, sounds, and smells of nature can improve our mood and benefit our mental and physical health. Scroll over the illustration below to learn more. And as you celebrate Earth Day, consider taking a few moments to enjoy nature in one way or another — by visiting your local park, spending some time in the garden, repotting an indoor plant, or even just listening to nature sounds to relax.
Parks and natural areas can be a great place to go for a walk, run, or spin. In addition to providing fitness benefits, green spaces can help your health in a variety of other ways.
Exposure to sunlight can help your body make Vitamin D, which is essential for building strong bones, fighting disease, and reducing depression. Plus, exposure to sunlight earlier in the day may help you sleep better later by helping to regulate your circadian rhythm.
Being around nature can reduce mental fatigue, restore your attention, and improve productivity. It might even improve academic performance.
Want to de-stress? Studies suggest that getting outside can lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Nature's soothing effects aren't limited to summertime; when Earth Institute researchers surveyed winter park users in Manhattan, 45% said they associated the park with calmness.
Greenery gives people more chances to interact and cultivate stronger ties to their communities. It might even reduce aggression and crime rates.
In East Harlem, community gardens play an essential role in participants' social lives. Many reported knowing their neighbors better because of the garden.
What is it about nature that our brains and bodies find so appealing and relaxing? Scientists can't say for sure, but it probably comes down to a variety of factors.
Listening to nature sounds, as compared to urban sounds, may enhance your working memory performance.
Ecologist Natalie Boelman at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory uses acoustic recordings to better understand how climate change is impacting songbirds that migrate to the Arctic. Listen to an example of one of her team's recordings here.
Nature contains lots of fractals — patterns that repeat at different scales — that can be found in tree branches, river deltas, pinecones, and even vegetables, such as romanesco broccoli. Human brains tend to find these patterns aesthetically pleasing.
Check out some of the beautiful photos our researchers have captured during their fieldwork.
Natural areas support more diverse ecosystems than developed areas. That's not only important for the plants and animals that live in these places, but also for the humans that depend on those plants and animals — even when we may not realize that we do.
Urban life can be quite dirty, but trees, parks, community gardens, and other green infrastructure can help to clean up smog and particulate pollution that comes from cars and furnaces. Compared to paved areas, parks and green spaces also lower temperatures, helping to reduce the urban heat island effect.
A study from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that capping a 2.4-mile section of the Cross-Bronx Expressway with a park would increase local property values and life expectancy, thanks to cleaner air and reduced traffic accidents. Read the full story.
During heavy rainstorms, urban runoff can clog sewers and carry pollution into local waterways. Green infrastructure such as parks and tree pits can help to absorb and clean up some of this water as it filters through roots and soil.
Sustainable development and environmental science student Annie Block investigated how well certain types of green infrastructure filter water. Read more.
By absorbing rainwater, areas covered with trees and other vegetation can help water to percolate deep into the ground, instead of running off into rivers or sewers. This process helps to recharge the aquifers that many of us rely on for drinking water.
The Columbia Water Center has revealed that groundwater levels are dropping across a much wider swath of the United States than commonly thought. Read the full story.
The natural world helps humans. Approximately 75% of the world's food crops are pollinated by insects and other animals, and many modern medicines, like aspirin, caffeine and morphine, are modeled after chemical compositions found in plants.
In a new book, environmental geographer Ruth DeFries argues that we can adapt to an unpredictable world by adopting strategies from nature. Learn more.
Scientists estimate that 86-91 percent of the species on Earth have not yet been identified. Imagine the benefits humans might miss out on if they go extinct.
As director of science at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, Shahid Naeem works with others to study the environmental consequences of declining biodiversity. Learn more.