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Has a U.S. River Run Backwards Before?

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The ongoing drought conditions wreaking havoc across large swaths of the country have driven the water in Lake Michigan an inch below its previous record low, and aren’t stopping. Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that, if this continues and the lake water drops below the level of the Chicago River, the river could reverse course and begin flowing back towards its source. (Thankfully, there’s a series of locks separating the two, which will help prevent the less-than-clean river from flowing into the lake and the city’s source of drinking water.) Has an American river ever done an about-face like this before?

Right Back Where it Started From

Oh yeah. In fact, the Chicago has done it before. If the river does reverse course, it won’t be running backwards so much as running forwards again. 

When Europeans first settled in the Chicago area, the river drained into Lake Michigan, which was fine—except that settlers used the river to dump waste, and used the lake for drinking water. As the city grew, there were numerous outbreaks of typhoid and cholera because of contaminated drinking water, and something had to be done. 

In the late 1800s, the city decided to solve their problem with an ambitious engineering feat: They would reverse the flow of the river and send it away from the lake and towards the Mississippi River. The so-called “Chicago Diversion” worked: It not only diverted contaminated water away from the city’s drinking water, but also connected the Great Lakes and Mississippi River water systems and opened up the possibility of commercial travel and trade between them. 

It hasn't been just barges and haulers that could cross from one system to the other, though. Invasive Asian carp, introduced decades ago to southern fish farms as pond cleaners, have gradually made their way north, threatening native species and altering food webs as they go. With the fish nearing the Great Lakes, the idea of un-reversing (re-reversing?) the Chicago River has been kicked around, but now it looks like the river could take care of the problem itself. 

All Shook Up

The most famous of American Rivers, the mighty Mississippi, also might have gone backwards more than once. In 1811 and 1812, three earthquakes—the most powerful to ever hit the eastern U.S.—struck what was then a sparsely populated area of the Louisiana Territory. 

Eyewitness accounts from the quake read like Michael Bay scripts: The ground rippled and quivered; chasms opened up and swallowed livestock and wagons; sand and dirt exploded from the ground like volcanic eruptions and blotted out the sun; the Mississippi shook with such violence that the water ran backwards and boats were dragged upstream. 

One boatman, wanting to get away from the trees falling over on the river banks, put his boat out into the middle of the river and soon found, he claimed, that “the current changed, and the boat hurried up, for about the space of a minute, with the velocity of the swiftest horse,” fast enough that he had to hold on to his hat to keep it on his head. 

Gradually, the man said, the river returned to its normal course. Exactly how long that took is unclear, and various firsthand accounts have the river going backwards for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Whether the river even reversed itself at all is questionable, and the United States Geological Survey says that ground uplifts and waves moving upstream may have just created the illusion that the water was moving backwards. 

What’s more certain is that the Mississippi reversed course for about 24 hours when Hurricane Isaac struck last year, and when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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