The relationship we Earthlings have with our planet is ever changing, and as we say goodbye to another year, let’s take a moment to reflect on the direction we may be heading in. The news over the past 12 months took many troubling turns, but along with the tragic came the hopeful, most notably in the pivot the world made toward meaningful climate action in early December. The following photographs are the images that resonated most deeply with us at onEarth, reminding us that where there are challenges, there is also beauty.
A man in South Sumatra carries a bucket of water as firefighters battle flames near his home. Indonesia’s forest fires have been an annual consequence of illegal slash-and-burn agriculture for decades, but El Niño added extra fuel to this year’s crisis. The blazes emitted more carbon each day this past fall than the entire U.S. economy, torched endangered orangutan habitat, and were labeled a crime against humanity after acute respiratory illnesses sickened half a million Indonesians. One Sumatran city even evacuated its infants. The drifting haze choked much of Southeast Asia and prompted school closings, grounded flights, event cancellations in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore. This week the Indonesian government announced it would be turning up the heat on the companies responsible.
In Midtown Manhattan, a mural of Pope Francis welcomed the pontiff in September during his first visit to the United States. In addition to this 180-foot likeness, the pope became a towering figure in the climate movement this year when he published the first-ever encyclical on environmental stewardship. In “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” Francis wrote that humanity has a moral obligation to fight for climate justice, a call to action that he repeated while stateside as he addressed Congress and the United Nations General Assembly. At the U.N., at least, his message seemed to stick.
This is what Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, looked like in March 2015. The rock sitting atop it will eventually fall into Mendenhall Lake, where the glacier calves its ice. Since 2007, Mendenhall has retreated about one third of a mile, and tourists’ demands to see the shrinking glacier before it melts completely away surged this year.
Sea level rise has already begun to wash away this oceanfront cemetery in the village of Jenrok on Majuro, Marshall Islands. Low-lying Pacific nations were high fliers at December’s United Nations climate change conference as Tony De Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, formed a “high-ambition coalition” of more than 100 countries. Together they pushed for the 1.5-degree C. warming limit that was eventually agreed upon by all 195 participating governments. It’s easy to see why the islands demanded a winning deal; they have everything to lose.
These white rhinos, an adult and calf, have found sanctuary at Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. By the end of April, rhino killings had already reached a record level in that country for 2015, and rangers and poachers continue to lock horns over the escalating slaughter of elephants, pangolins, and other endangered wildlife. This year several countries destroyed ivory stockpiles in highly publicized crushes, a new canine detection unit lent wildlife officials a helping paw, and new technology promised to disrupt the illegal wildlife market. During his first state visit to Kenya, President Obama announced a ban on the sale of “virtually all” ivory across state lines, a move in the right direction, but the poaching crisis is still far from extinct.
In August, three million gallons of liquid waste laden with heavy metals spilled from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, turning the Animas River the color of Tang. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been trying to stop the abandoned gold mine from leaking when workers accidentally breached a dam, spewing the toxic wastewater. The incident highlighted (in bright orange) the danger posed by the hundreds of thousands of inactive mines across the country.
On the extremely smoggy morning of December 1 in Beijing, a woman wore a protective face mask as she walked past the China Central Television building. A week later, as China, the world’s number one carbon emitter, was participating in the United Nations climate change conference, the city issued its first-ever red alert for air pollution. This, the highest level of a four-tier warning system adopted in 2013, shuts down schools, limits driving, and temporarily closes factories. A week later, the second-ever red alert came.
This coral, photographed in early 2015 by the XL Catlin Seaview Survey team in the sea surrounding American Samoa, had expelled the colorful algae living inside its tissue and providing it with food, revealing a ghostly-white skeleton beneath. Coral bleaching, as this stress response is called, often accompanies temperature shifts. The oceans have absorbed about 90 percent of the atmosphere’s extra heat, and this year, the one-two punch of climate change and El Niño has landed the marine invertebrates in seriously hot water. In fact, for just the third time ever in recorded history, a worldwide coral bleaching event is underway.
A beekeeper in Gaza holds a handful of his tiny winged charges. Conflict in the region has taken a toll on honey production, but honeybees in the United States and elsewhere are experiencing a different sort of unrest. Last winter, U.S. beekeepers lost 42 percent of their colonies. Colony collapse disorder is poorly understood, but neonicotinoids, parasitic mites, and habitat loss are all contributing to the buzz-off.
On the eve of COP21 in Paris, thousands of people—including big names like Pope Francis and Ban Ki-moon—placed pairs of their empty shoes in Place de la République to take a symbolic stand for bold climate action. Following the Paris terror attacks in November, the French government banned public demonstrations during the United Nations climate change conference. But that didn’t stop activists and artists from finding creative ways of showing unity at a time when the world needed it most.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.