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10 Ways National Geographic Has Changed the World

National Geographic magazine’s 125th anniversary issue is out on newsstands this month. As we take a look back at our legacy so far, here are just a few of the ways that National Geographic has changed the world.  1. Standing up for endangered wildlife. National Geographic‘s articles have featured plenty of endangered species, but the...

National Geographic magazine’s 125th anniversary issue is out on newsstands this month. As we take a look back at our legacy so far, here are just a few of the ways that National Geographic has changed the world. 

1. Standing up for endangered wildlife.

National Geographic‘s articles have featured plenty of endangered species, but the magazine’s stories have done more than show readers the plight of threatened wildlife—they’ve helped motivate people to protect it. Take, for example, Bryan Christy’s exposé of Asia’s illegal wildlife trade in the January 2010 issue of the magazine. The article and its harrowing photographs resulted in the Malaysian Parliament passing the first wildlife law overhaul in the country since 1972.

Two years later, Christy’s article “Ivory Worship” sparked international outrage and rallied people from Thailand to the Philippines to protest and take action against killing elephants for their tusks. It was the catalyst for a congressional hearing and for Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented Roundtable on Wildlife Trafficking. And its impact continues.

2. Helping to establish the U.S. national parks.

Many of our founders were rugged, outdoorsy gentlemen. They were the kind of guys who appreciated wilderness back in the days when most people were still attempting to tame it. John Wesley Powell, Almon F. Thompson, and Clarence Dutton were some of the first people to systematically explore the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon national park areas. Rogers Birnie found the first passable route over what became Death Valley National Park. Robert Muldrow was the first to measure the height of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest summit and the central feature of Denali National Park.

Land of the Best,” a major article in the magazine’s April 1916 issue, helped spur the establishment of the National Park Service. National Geographic has given grants to establish or sustain national parks and has extensively written about the parks for close to a century.

3. The development of the Afghan’s Children Fund.

In 1985, Steve McCurry‘s photograph of a mysterious green-eyed Afghan girl ran on the cover of National Geographic‘s June issue. The picture would go on to become the most iconic image in the magazine’s history.

Photo of the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula
Sharbat Gula, photographed for 1985 and 2002 issues of National Geographic. Photographs by Steve McCurry, National Geographic

But it almost didn’t happen. The photograph had been placed in a reject pile, and was rescued from the scrap heap in the nick of time by editor Wilbur Garrett. In 2002, when Steve McCurry tracked down Sharbat Gula, the subject of the photograph, her wish was to improve the prospects of Afghan girls and women. As a result, National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls’ Fund (later renamed the Afghan Children’s Fund). The fund is still going strong and has raised over $1 million to expand education efforts for children in Afghanistan and for young Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

4. The discovery of life in the Galápagos Rift.

In February 1977, 34-year-old Robert Ballard was chief scientist on a Woods Hole expedition to hunt for geothermal vents in the floor of the Pacific. With him was a team of three photographers for National Geographic magazine. They had brought with them color film, a processor ingeniously rigged to develop it, and a device to time-stamp it.

When they pulled up the newly exposed film and began watching it on the scanning projector, they saw something none of them expected. Sure enough, there was a vent, but there were also hundreds of … clams. The next day, scientists climbed into a submersible and plunged down nearly two miles to get a better look.

What they saw amazed them. In addition to clams, there were mussels, sea anemones, and other species no one could identify. There wasn’t a single biologist on the expedition because no one expected to see anything alive down there. Until that point, scientists had believed the dark recesses of the ocean were biological deserts. Their finds were a major discovery.

And our exploration of the ocean continues. Last year, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron made headlines around the world when he completed a record-breaking dive into the Mariana Trench.

 5. Spreading the news about climate change.

Photo of Greenland's meltwater
A camera is installed along a glacier’s meltwater canyon in Greenland. Photograph by James Balog, National Geographic

National Geographic has published numerous articles about climate change and its effects on people, plants, and animals. Sometimes those efforts have turned into something more. Photographer James Balog‘s Extreme Ice Survey – an innovative, long-term project documenting the effects of climate change, especially the melting of glaciers – grew out of his 2006 National Geographic assignment to document changing glaciers in various parts of the world. (Check out his June 2007 cover story “The Big Thaw.”) The Extreme Ice Survey provides scientists with information on the mechanics of glacial melting and educates the public on how our planet’s climate is changing.

6. Mapping the sky.

Just about everyone is familiar with National Geographic’s maps and atlases, but not many people today are aware that National Geographic’s cartography has ventured into the realm of the extraterrestrial… even the extragalactic.

In 1949, National Geographic embarked on a seven-year project with the Mount Palomar Observatory in California to make a photo-map of everything in the night sky that was visible from the Northern Hemisphere. Astronomers divided the sky into almost 900 fields and photographed each one.

What resulted was a unique “atlas” – not a bound volume, but 1,758 negative prints that, laid out in a mosaic, would have taken up an entire tennis court. Captured on those plates were over 89 million objects, including at least 13 new comets, 4 previously undiscovered galaxies, and thousands of asteroids, one of which was named Geographos in honor of National Geographic.

National Geographic ran several articles about the Sky Survey in the 1950s to update the public about the progress of the project. The magazine’s then-science editor Ken Weaver called the effort the “finest scientific project the Geographic has ever sponsored.” It’s been digitized and is now available online for anyone who wants to search it.

7. Inspiring those kitschy plastic flamingos.

The next time you see one of those pink, plastic flamingos, thank National Geographic. Donald Featherstone, the designer of the first flamingo prototype, was inspired by the article “Ballerinas in Pink,” which came out in the magazine’s October 1957 issue.

Photo of plastic pink flamingos on Montreal lawn
A plastic-flamingo-themed wedding in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Photograph by Sisse Brimberg, National Geographic

National Geographic has made countless other appearances in popular culture – everything from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Homage to Switzerland” to the movie Jaws. Donald Duck artist Carl Barks drew heavily from scenes he saw in his National Geographic magazines while drawing the scenery in Duck comic strips. We also produced a fake May 1966 cover for use in the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County, in which Clint Eastwood plays a National Geographic photographer who woos Meryl Streep.

8. The discovery of new (real) bird species.

Nowadays, Jared Diamond is best known for his books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. But before he was a Pulitzer-winning writer, he was a National Geographic grantee in New Guinea looking for the elusive golden-fronted bowerbird – a species scientists had been searching for since 1895 when a feather merchant brought the bird’s skin to Europe. In January 1981, he found it. The discovery was such a big deal that the story made the front page of the New York Times.

More recently, photojournalist Tim Laman and ornithologist Ed Scholes traveled to New Guinea to document all 39 birds of paradise species for the first time. The project, which was done in partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, took eight years and 18 expeditions to complete. These bizarre and beautiful birds were showcased in the December 2012 issue of the magazine.

9. Ruling Instagram.

With 2.4 million followers, National Geographic is the largest Instagram brand. Instagram is just one of the ways we’ve used new media and technology to share our stories and pictures with people around the world. The practice dates all the way back to 1905 when Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the magazine’s first editor, decided to put 11 pages of photographs in the January issue – the magazine’s first extensive use of photographs.

In 1984, we were the first major publication to put a hologram on our cover. Two other issues with holograms followed in November 1985 and December 1988. The 1988 cover was the most ambitious cover ever produced. The entire thing (front, back, and spine) was holographic. If you read the magazine on your iPad, it may be hard to believe, but these holograms were state of the art, and they weren’t easy to produce. The printers struggled to figure out how to get the holographic foils on the magazine covers, and design constraints allowed for only a tiny margin of error. They were high-tech magazines for the predigital age.

10. Inspiring people to care about the planet.

This one we can’t really take responsibility for – the credit goes to our members and readers. We get letters and feedback from people every week, and readers have occasionally reached out to help the people they read about.

In 1982, for example, after seeing a photograph of Eduardo Ramos, a Peruvian boy, crying after several of his family’s sheep were run over by a vehicle, National Geographic readers responded so generously that the boy’s family was able to buy five new ewes. Enough money was left over to aid other children in the region.

In 2003, after the magazine published “Untouchable,” a reader in Ohio was so touched by the plight of a man who had been doused in acid after fishing in a pond reserved for upper-caste villagers that she raised money to pay for his corrective surgeries.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Alyson Foster
Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.