Issue of the Week: Disease, Human Rights, War, Environment, Hunger, Economic Opportunity, Population, Personal Growth
The 2021, “Year in Pictures, December Issue, National Geographic
Our last post was the New York Times year in pictures, as we did last year and before. Now we go to National Geographic Magazine, as we also did last year for its inaugural picures of the year.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
The 2021 “Year in Pictures” issue, our second, feels very different from the first. Many people have called 2020 their most challenging year ever: a pandemic worldwide, racial and political strife in the United States. Yet well into 2021, problems of all kinds persisted; the political rancor and climate crisis did not abate.
As we noted at the end of 2020 and start of 2021, our observation has been that 2020 has not ended yet. It has been an unprecedented time–a time in which time itself has manifested in our human experience in a manner that stands still and moves at the speed of light simultaneously.
National Geograpic Magazine has done an astounding job of capturing much of this experience. In addition to this piece, it links to numerous others that tell the story of life on earth and of earth in the universe.
Here it is:
The 2021 “Year in Pictures” issue, our second, feels very different from the first. Many people have called 2020 their most challenging year ever: a pandemic worldwide, racial and political strife in the United States. Yet well into 2021, problems of all kinds persisted; the political rancor and climate crisis did not abate. On the other hand, vaccines and other medical advances, along with behavioral shifts, began to rein in the virus and raise spirits. You’ll see that glint of optimism reflected in many of the photographs we chose to represent this whipsaw year.
The pandemic put us on a roller coaster in 2021. New vaccines spurred optimism and reopenings, but immunization efforts were plagued by misinformation and shortages. As the rhythms of daily life return, the virus remains a threat.
With a cooler of COVID-19 vaccines in hand, Nazir Ahmed looks for shepherds and nomadic herders in the meadows of Tosamaidan, southwest of Srinagar in the Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir. In the race to vaccinate against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, health-care workers have gone to extreme lengths to reach remote communities. From Srinagar, it took Ahmed and a half dozen colleagues three hours driving and then walking to reach this isolated spot. They spent four hours searching for people and vaccinated more than 10.PHOTOGRAPH BY DAR YASIN, AP PHOTO
Brothers of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity’s founding chapter haven’t truly graduated from Howard University until they complete a half-century-old tradition: a joyous, choreographed stroll. Passersby “stop—they stop!—because they know the culture, the history,” says Travis Xavier Brown (at far right), a 2021 theater graduate. “It’s a rite of passage.” The pandemic forced Howard to switch to online classes, but as COVID-19 cases fell, the school opted to hold a joint, in-person commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2021. PHOTOGRAPH BY JARED SOARES
Relatives pour rose water and offer flowers at a COVID-19 victim’s grave in Cilincing, North Jakarta. Rorotan Public Cemetery opened in March with space for 7,200 plots, but it quickly began filling up as Indonesia suffered a huge spike in cases in July. At the peak, the world’s fourth most populous country saw an average of 50,000 cases a day. PHOTOGRAPH BY MUHAMMAD FADLI
It was supposed to be a triumphant year, the year we defeated COVID-19. Revolutionary vaccines—developed at breakneck speed from genetic technology decades in the making—were rolling out, ushering in the largest global immunization campaign in history. Lockdowns, isolation, masking, and sparsely attended funerals would give way to open borders, family reunions, and rebounding economies. In 2021 life would return to normal.
What we didn’t know, though, was that the vaccination drive would falter. In the United States, millions spurned vaccines despite a deadly winter surge followed by another in the summer. Scientists making discoveries and adjusting recommendations aroused suspicion. Misinformation and snake oil spread as rapidly as the virus. Vaccines were denounced as a form of government control; masks a violation of personal liberty. In much of the world, by contrast, immunizations were simply, tragically, unavailable.
As we squandered the opportunity to reach herd immunity, the virus took advantage. SARS-CoV-2 multiplied, yielding countless mutations. With each genetic change came a chance for the virus to grow deadlier—to dodge the immune system, infect cells more easily, trigger more severe disease, spread across borders. We were at the mercy of high-speed natural selection.
Thus began the rise of the variants: Alpha, in the United Kingdom; Beta, in South Africa; Gamma, in Brazil; and then, from India, Delta.
More infectious and possibly more lethal than any of its predecessors, Delta swept through the world’s second most populous country with relentless ferocity, overwhelming health-care workers, packing hospitals with feverish, oxygen-starved patients, and sending bodies to crematoria where funeral pyres blazed around the clock.
By July, Delta was becoming the dominant variant worldwide, and by September, it had pushed U.S. deaths past the toll from the 1918 Spanish flu, making COVID-19 the deadliest pandemic in the nation’s history. More than 750,000 Americans had died by early November. But the coronavirus has hit some communities harder: Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black Americans have died at the highest rates.
The pandemic laid bare another glaring health disparity, the global vaccine divide: an abundance of doses in countries where people didn’t want them and a shortage, or absence, in those where people did.
Nine months after the first COVID-19 vaccine was authorized, more than 80 percent of all the shots had been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries. While people in poor nations were still waiting for a first one, wealthy nations were approving boosters for vaccinated individuals.
The result: Millions around the world have died from a disease that in most instances can be prevented with a single injection or a two-dose regimen.
Even as vaccines are distributed, we may never be completely rid of this virus. The four coronaviruses that cause the common cold are endemic, as are the viruses descended from the one that sparked the Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide.
Experts say the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus most likely will hang around, evolving and circulating for years. But as people develop immunity, outbreaks will be smaller and the virus will cause less acute illness.
We will be stuck not only with the virus but also with a little-understood and harrowing legacy: Ten to 30 percent of the hundreds of millions infected may suffer from lingering and potentially debilitating symptoms. So-called long COVID—which includes ailments from brain fog, memory loss, and fatigue to erectile dysfunction and menstrual changes to loss of smell and taste—will require new treatments and therapies.
In the meantime, as long as many of us are unprotected, none of us is safe. Unvaccinated people provide a reservoir for new variants to arise. It’s imperative both to persuade those who are hesitant to get a vaccine—which provides greater immunity than getting COVID-19—and to deliver vaccines to even the most remote communities. COVAX, a multinational initiative to make COVID-19 vaccines available everywhere, expects to reach the two-billion-dose milestone early this year.
That’s a step in the right direction. But as 2021 showed us, and as Delta has taught us, the virus doesn’t care about our timeline or our rules.
Bijal P. Trivedi is a National Geographic editor and the author of Breath from Salt, which chronicles the quest to cure children with cystic fibrosis—and the dawn of personalized medicine.
Planted on parkland around the Washington Monument, the small white flags were both tributes to and symbols of each life lost to COVID-19 in the United States. Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg devised the installation to express the enormity of the national death toll—and also the pain of individual deaths, as mourners decorated flags with loved ones’ names and photos. During the roughly three weeks that the installation was in place, the U.S. passed a grim milestone: 700,000 COVID fatalities.
To create this composite image, Stephen Wilkes took hundreds of photos from the same vantage point during 30 hours spanning three days. He then merged select photos into this single scene. Learn more about Wilkes’s “Day to Night” technique here. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN WILKES
A torrent of rush hour scooters flows off a bridge into Taipei, bringing commuters from nearby Sanchong to the capital. The Alpha variant of SARS-CoV-2 caused a wave of cases from May to July, striking fear in many, but Taiwan was able to tamp down new cases thanks in part to strict quarantine policies and thorough contact tracing. The total case rate is more than 190 times lower in Taiwan than in the United States. PHOTOGRAPH BY LAM YIK FEI
In South Jakarta’s Manggarai village, teacher Erdah Desiana at Elementary School No. 1 leads a small group of students. This school was one of hundreds around Jakarta that restarted in-person classes with stringent health protocols. Schools were open three days a week with half the students present one day and the other half there the next. Students at home attended via video-conference. Outbreaks of COVID-19 were still plaguing Indonesia, but the government pushed ahead with in-person school, arguing that the educational benefits outweighed the risks. PHOTOGRAPH BY MUHAMMAD FADLI
Students Jorge Gutierrez, Montserrat Olvera, and Tiffany Rodriguez dole out face masks and adjust their outfits as they ride the bus with other members of Mariachi Nuevo Cascabel—the varsity mariachi band at Mission’s Sharyland High School. The group had gigs at nearby schools to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and Mexican Independence Day. The tour marked the band’s first live shows since the pandemic began, after a year of virtual rehearsals. Those performances paid off: In October, the students played as the opening act for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, widely considered the world’s best mariachi band.PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTOPHER LEE
Spaced out across the Tel Aviv opera house, a masked audience takes in a revue by the Israeli Opera’s sopranos. By the middle of March, Israel had vaccinated more than half its citizens—a world first that sharply drove down its case counts. The country also rolled out a “green pass” system for fully vaccinated or recovered Israelis. From late April to late June, Israel had an average of fewer than 100 new COVID-19 cases a day—until the arrival of the more contagious Delta variant, which fueled a third wave of cases. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN BALILTY
DELTA TAKES OVER
The Delta variant’s rapid spread—despite changes in less than 0.5 percent of its genome—took scientists by surprise. Within months of when the first mutation was detected, in October 2020, the Delta variant had quickly outpaced all other variants. Now scientists are tracking a concerning new one—Omicron.
Manuel Canales, Patricia Healy, NGM Staff. Sources: Stuart C. Ray, Johns Hopkins U. School of Medicine; Emily N. Pond, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center; Alba Grifoni, La Jolla Institute; Daniel S. Chertow, NIH; GISAID; Nextstrain; WHO; CDC
With her son next to her, Marinelly Hernández receives a vitamin infusion while recovering from COVID-19 at the La Guajira reintegration camp, one of 24 built to help former fighters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia return to society. Since the militants signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, former rebels such as Hernández have reunited with their families at these sites. Fewer than 50 residents of the La Guajira camp were diagnosed with COVID-19, a number possibly kept low because of their relative isolation from the outside population. PHOTOGRAPH BY JUAN ARREDONDO
Over two days in July, some 10,000 people filed through East Jakarta’s packed Pulo Gebang bus station to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Indonesia has a population of more than 270 million across a far-flung archipelago, so its rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has faced challenges. Kinks in its vaccine supply have also caused problems, but during the summer, the country rapidly ramped up its efforts. More than a million people a day were receiving shots. PHOTOGRAPH BY MUHAMMAD FADLI
With a sunset’s fading light behind them, workers from a funeral home in Huancavelica wait for the end of a service to move a coffin into a niche at the city’s general cemetery. Although COVID-19 death counts are unreliable, Peru has one of the world’s highest per capita death tolls. In the rural area around Huancavelica, the pandemic has claimed more than 1,160 lives. PHOTOGRAPH BY ALESSANDRO CINQUE
Huge wildfires, drought, record heat, melting glaciers, rising seas, intense storms. The alarms have been sounding for years, but 2021 showed that climate change is here and can’t be ignored.
Firefighters spent months in 2021 battling to contain California’s Dixie fire, which burned nearly a million acres and destroyed most of Greenville, a town of around a thousand. The number and size of wildfires across western North America have increased in recent years, driven in part by climate change, which intensifies hot, dry conditions that suck water from living and dead plants, making them likelier to burn. Part of the solution, scientists agree, is more widespread use of “good” fire: controlled, low-intensity burns that clear leaf litter and brush from the forest floor, reducing the fuel for wildfires. PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNSEY ADDARIO
Swarms of locusts descended on East Africa from 2019 into 2021, destroying crops in a region where millions of people are at risk of starvation. The outbreaks were driven by unusually strong cyclones that dumped torrential rains, creating perfect conditions for the insects. The storms, in turn, were fueled by unusually warm waters off East Africa. Climate change, besides warming the whole planet, recently has favored an El Niño–like oscillation that pushes warm waters into the western Indian Ocean, where East African cyclones are born. “I think we can assume there will be more locust outbreaks and upsurges in the Horn of Africa,” says Keith Cressman, a desert locust expert with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CHANCELLOR
Sali and Yosep watch television while keeping their feet off the flooded floor of their rented home in Demak Regency, on the north coast of Central Java, Indonesia. High tides routinely flood homes in the sprawling municipality, which has lost more than 7,500 acres since 2013 to subsidence and rising seas. The two construction workers were shocked by the flooding when they moved here from West Java in 2018—but they’ve gotten used to it. By 2050, land that now is home to 23 million people in Indonesia will be flooded annually, a 2019 study estimated. PHOTOGRAPH BY AJI STYAWAN
During the decades-long struggle to forestall climate change, some moments looked like watersheds at the time. In 1992, with much fanfare, the world’s nations signed a treaty in Rio de Janeiro promising action; in 2015, after contentious negotiations, they pledged in Paris to adopt national plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Yet global carbon emissions from fossil fuels kept rising—until 2020, when they fell as much as 7 percent as a result of lower fossil fuel usage during COVID-19 lockdowns.
But in 2021 emissions started rising again, and the public conversation about climate change heated up too. In September, after a summer of extreme weather drove destruction and death, a Yale/George Mason University poll found for the first time that a majority of Americans believe they are being harmed by climate change right now.
So does 2021 finally mark a turning point in public opinion on climate? National Geographic reporter Alejandra Borunda and I spoke with two expert observers: Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and author of Saving Us, and Katharine Wilkinson, a best-selling writer, podcaster, and co-editor (with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson) of All We Can Save, a book of essays on climate by women.
KUNZIG: Alejandra, the weather this year kept finding fresh ways to appall us.
BORUNDA: It’s just a continuation of a trend toward more and more extremes. Here in California, it became clear pretty early [in 2021] that it was going to be a very dry and probably very hot year. We were seeing streams drying up, baby salmon dying, and people’s wells drying up. When the heat started to come, we saw absolutely unprecedented heat waves across the Pacific Northwest. Then, of course, the fires started, which is another thing we’ve gotten all too used to.
And that’s just the American West. Things are happening across the planet: devastating floods in Europe and China that took hundreds of lives and, during Hurricane Ida, from the Gulf Coast all the way to the Northeast. Every year as climate reporters, we’re cataloging disasters.
HAYHOE: What we scientists are starting to be able to do is put numbers on how much worse climate change made specific events. The numbers are horrifying. With the deadly floods in Germany, the attribution study showed they were as much as nine times more likely as a result of a changing climate. With the wildfires, with the crazy heat waves out West, those were over 150 times more likely. In my opinion, the best way to talk about what’s happening is not global warming—it’s global weirding. Things are definitely getting weirder.
KUNZIG: Katharine Wilkinson, you’ve spoken in the past of a “great awakening” of popular opinion. Is it happening?
WILKINSON: The gathering intensity of extreme weather events actually parallels what we’re seeing in public engagement. My antenna reading is that more and more people are asking, What can I do? How can I help? A lot of my work now is trying to help people become participants in this great transformation.
KUNZIG: You once wrote a sentence about all this that really struck me: “It is a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment that matters so much.” I often wonder whether as journalists, we convey that excitement. Katharine Hayhoe, do you worry about that?
HAYHOE: I worry about it so much that I literally wrote a book all about it: Saving Us. With climate change, we’re overloaded with doom-filled stories that have very little to do with us, and we dissociate. We think, “Well, I can’t do anything to save the polar bears.” In reality we need stories about how it’s affecting us in ways that we immediately relate to—and then stories about all the amazing solutions that are out there.
But it isn’t just up to the media. It’s up to all of us. The reason we don’t have slavery today, the reason women can vote, the reason the Civil Rights Act passed is because ordinary people decided the world had to change. We have to activate every single one of us.
KUNZIG: What has inspired you lately?
BORUNDA: Reporting on shade in Los Angeles. There are some communities that have tons of trees, and there are communities that have very few. I got to spend time with people trying to fix that problem, young people planting trees in their communities who were like, I am doing something here, in a place that matters to me, for people I care about.
HAYHOE: Last year, during the pandemic, there was a virtual science fair. A sixth-grade team from Lubbock, Texas, where I live, won a national competition for a project that looked at how to put carbon back in the soil. They developed an outreach program to talk to local farmers about no-till agriculture and regenerative agricultural practices. If sixth graders from Lubbock could make a difference, could raise awareness that farmers can be heroes when it comes to climate solutions—if they can do it, can’t everybody?
And then I look at the macro scale, the fact that during COVID in 2020, 90 percent of new energy installed around the world was clean energy. You realize climate action is not a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of an impossibly steep hill. It is already at the top of the hill. It already has millions of hands on it, pushing that boulder down the hill, in the right direction. We just need more hands.
Robert Kunzig is National Geographic’s environment editor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more of this conversation here.
Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula nest around an old whale vertebra, a relic of the days when whaling was common in the region. Winter temperatures here have risen a mind-boggling 11 degrees Fahrenheit (six degrees Celsius) since 1950, more than five times the global average. The sea-ice season is now about three months shorter than it used to be. Chinstrap and Adélie penguins, which hunt krill offshore and depend on sea ice, are in decline. But the more flexible gentoos are thriving on ice-free beaches and waters. Their global population has increased sixfold since the 1980s. PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK
Some of the ice in the 26-mile-long cave system known as Eisriesenwelt—“World of Ice Giants”—could be more than a thousand years old. Ice forms inside because cracks in the ceiling allow snowmelt to trickle into the cave in spring, while warm air rises out, keeping the temperature below freezing. Like glaciers in the Alps, ice caves deep inside mountains are melting as the planet warms. But this one, a major tourist attraction containing more than 30,000 tons of ice, seems to be holding on to its ice for now—perhaps because it has a door at the entrance and extra-large “chimneys” to evacuate warm air. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBBIE SHONE
A Toyota Land Cruiser retooled with an electric motor is taken for a test-drive at a wind farm in Kenya. Transportation accounts for nearly a quarter of all carbon emissions from fossil fuels, but the electric-vehicle revolution is accelerating: By 2040 EVs are expected to dominate the new-car market. For maximum benefit, the electricity itself has to be clean—and Kenya gets two-thirds of its electricity from renewables. “If we go electric, we are protecting the entire world,” says Esther Wairimu, an engineer at Opibus, the company that converted the Land Cruiser.PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLE SOBECKI
A YEAR OF RECORDS
Unprecedented heat, cold, and rainfall crippled infrastructure across the U.S. and led to a major loss of life in 2021. Climate change is now considered the world’s greatest threat to human health—and the frequency of related extreme weather events is increasing.
Sources: NOAA; U.S. Drought Monitor
In Colorado, wild horses stampede on land so dry that dust billows up at the slightest touch. The American West recorded an exceptionally hot and dry year in 2021; in the Southwest it was another entry in a 20-year-long “megadrought” so intense that it rivals any in the past 12 centuries. But “as warm and hot and record-setting as it has been the last few years,” says climate scientist Brad Udall, “what you need to keep in mind is, these are some of the coolest temperatures you’re going to experience in the next 100 years. Because it’s just going to get hotter. You ain’t seen nothing yet.” PHOTOGRAPH BY ELLIOT ROSS
The 2021 rains were disappointing in Ethiopia, which has been stuck in a devastating drought for several years. On hearing rumors of rain near the Somali border, these camel herders walked 12 days to search, unsuccessfully, for pasture there—then 12 days back to draw water for their animals from this well near their home. Civil war is a big reason that some 13 million Ethiopians—more than a tenth of the population—face serious food insecurity. But climate change is a contributing factor: Major droughts are striking East Africa more often. PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNSEY ADDARIO
At dawn, meerkats emerge from their burrows and face the rising sun to warm up—but the Kalahari Desert may be getting too warm for them. As summers in the region get ever hotter, scientists are finding that meerkat pups are growing more slowly and adults dying more quickly, a trend they fear could worsen. It’s not just the heat: When rains fail, grasses suffer, ants and termites decline, and insect-eating animals, like meerkats, struggle—an illustration of how climate change can disrupt the delicate ecological balance even in an environment that’s already hot.PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK
Originally brought to Argentina for timber plantations, non-native pine trees now have grown out of control, creating an environmental tinderbox and an ecologically fragile system in the Patagonia region. Near the town of El Bolsón, a flashlight’s beam illuminates some remaining trees of native species—maqui, ciprés, ñire—dusted with ash.PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEJANDRO CHASKIELBERG
At an altitude of more than 17,000 feet in the Andes of southern Peru, Alina Surquislla Gomez, a third-generation alpaquera, cradles a baby alpaca on her way to the pastures where her family’s herd of more than 300 animals will graze in summer. Shrinking glaciers and increased drought have dried pastures in the Andes, forcing the herders—many of whom are women—to search for new grazing grounds, often in difficult terrain. Prized for their wool, alpacas are important to Peruvian culture and a major source of income in this region, which is home to several million of them. PHOTOGRAPH BY ALESSANDRO CINQUE
Disputes over culture, politics, land, and more flared around the world—including in the United States, which faced an assault on its democracy and continued to wrestle with the painful legacy of racism.
Three months before their deaths, 28-year-old Abdul Wahab (right), a former Taliban fighter, and 17-year-old Farhad, the son of their commander, stood guard at a mud outpost in the Karsai Mountains in northeastern Afghanistan. They were among the 150 pro-government militia members, many from nearby villages, who spread across Karsai Peak in an attempt to keep the Taliban at bay. On the weekend of July 2, the Taliban overran their positions. Wahab, Farhad, and 17 others were killed. Another 25 men were taken hostage. PHOTOGRAPH BY KIANA HAYERI
The U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, after a 20-year occupation, ended what’s been called America’s longest modern war. But the war there goes on for Hafiza, 70, seen here with a grandson. She has lived near the city of Faizabad since the Taliban took over her home village in 2019. Her sons’ choices leave Hafiza grieved and on uncertain ground: Two of them fought with the Afghan National Army, one with a militia, and one with the Taliban.PHOTOGRAPH BY KIANA HAYERI
Nearly 20 years after the Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan by the United States and NATO allies, the Islamist militants regained control of the country. The Taliban takeover was years in the making, yet shockingly swift. On April 14 President Joe Biden announced that U.S. forces would begin withdrawing in May, with all troops out by September 11. By August 15, the Taliban had seized the capital of Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, and Taliban fighters were crowded behind a massive desk at the presidential palace alongside one of Ghani’s former bodyguards (at far left, in business suit). PHOTOGRAPH BY ZABI KARIMI, AP PHOTO
A television news video from the morning of September 11, 2001, shows Joe Hunter and other firefighters of FDNY Squad 288, sober-faced and laden with gear, heading to the World Trade Center’s south tower to assist evacuations. When the tower collapsed, Hunter and his squad mates perished. His mangled helmet was found in the wreckage months later. In Hunter’s memory, his family donated it to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, where more than 70,000 objects help tell the stories of victims, responders, and survivors. “It’s the only thing we have of him that was down there,” says Hunter’s sister, Teresa Hunter Labo. Still, she says, it belongs at the museum. This photo was taken on April 13. PHOTOGRAPH BY HENRY LEUTWYLER. ARTIFACT FROM THE 9/11 MEMORIAL & MUSEUM, COURTESY BRIDGET HUNTER AND FAMILY
Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire when the pandemic began.
“It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives,” he said.
His plea went unheeded. Even during a public health catastrophe—one that threatened everyone on the planet—conflicts raged.
Two years into the pandemic, dozens of ongoing conflicts blaze around the world. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reports that since 2016 more than 100,000 people have died each year in tens of thousands of battles, riots, explosions, protests, and violence targeting civilians.
In 2021 the Taliban swept through Afghanistan and back into power after 20 years. Hamas sent rockets into Israel, which responded with air strikes into the Gaza Strip. Ethiopia’s war on its northern state of Tigray sowed a deadly famine.
In the United States, insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, and killings by police, especially of Black Americans, drove protesters back into the streets. Haitian migrants escaped strife, hunger, and natural disaster in their homeland, only to encounter violence at the U.S. border.
The details of conflicts vary: They take place in different countries within different cultures, and people fight over different things. In Afghanistan it’s the push to remake the country into a conservative Islamic state. In Myanmar, it’s the military’s unwillingness to cede power. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, to put it simplistically, it’s about who can live where. In Ethiopia it’s the combustion of years of political resentment. In the United States it’s about who has the right to power and safety, as well as the dangers of misinformation.
But the tactics employed in the very worst of the conflicts are similar: widespread violence, starvation, and rape.
Lynsey Addario has been photographing conflicts for more than 20 years in a dozen countries. Rape, as a weapon, is something she has seen throughout the world. The act itself is horrifying, and the fallout destroys communities. That’s what it’s intended to do. In some places, parents and husbands cast out women who have been raped, and their families are broken.
In Tigray, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces have systematically and brutally raped Tigrayan women. When Addario arrived in May to cover the effects of the war on civilians, she found women who’d escaped from their captors, or been released, and made their way to the shelter of a hospital in the state’s capital city of Mekele, then under the national army’s control.
“People who have not experienced war may not realize that in every conflict there are moments of peace—little sanctuaries of not quite safety when people can find some rest,” Addario says. “These women were in that moment, which gave them the strength and resilience to tell me what had happened to them.”
Addario cried as she listened.
“I could not ease their pain,” she says. “The only way I could help them—or any of the people I’ve photographed through the years—is by bringing their stories to the wider world.”
In the midst of these women’s anguish and grief, Addario tried to capture their beauty: “It might seem strange in those circumstances, but beauty invites readers to linger, to try to understand. And it conveys my experience that none of the people I photograph are victims. They’re survivors.” Her portrait of one of the survivors is in this section.
The effects of conflict last long after the fighting is over. Scars are left on bodies; frightening memories, in minds. The Tigrayan women Addario photographed will never forget their losses. Neither will anyone else caught in the relentless gears of armed conflict.
Even those separated from conflicts by time or distance still reel from them. Consider two painful remembrances in 2021: the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when a prosperous Black community in Oklahoma was destroyed by its white neighbors.
As a country, the United States is still reckoning with the aftershocks of these two harrowing events—and with acts of violence throughout the nation’s history. Monuments to slave owners who took up arms against the United States in the Civil War—such as Robert E. Lee—are now coming down. The remains of Native American children who died at the boarding schools they were forced to attend are only now being returned to their communities.
But consider too that the moments of stillness between conflict and strife leave room for reflection. How did this happen? How do we stop this from happening again? What more could we have done?
Maybe someday we’ll get it right.
Staff writer Rachel Hartigan most recently wrote for the magazine about the crisis in Ethiopia with Lynsey Addario.
Police officer Michael Fanone struggles against Trump supporters after they dragged him down the steps of the U.S. Capitol. At a rally earlier that day, then President Donald Trump falsely claimed that he’d won the 2020 presidential election “in a landslide” and urged supporters to go to the Capitol, where the House of Representatives was certifying the election results. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump said. Five people died as a result of the attack. Some 140 police officers were injured. More than 600 people have been arrested. The assault on the Capitol is the focus of a congressional investigation. PHOTOGRAPH BY MEL D. COLE
A political dispute between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated the federal government for decades, has exploded into war. It’s created a humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of millions of people—especially in the state of Tigray—and the existence of Ethiopia itself. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, as well as militias from the bordering state of Amhara, invaded Tigray in November 2020, cutting off aid and targeting civilians with particular brutality. This woman says she was raped by 15 Eritrean soldiers in one week, and she doesn’t know where her children are: “This is doomsday for me.”PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNSEY ADDARIO
Thaer al Rajabi, nine, wears a Palestinian flag as a cape while playing on the rooftop where his father, Kayed al Rajabi, set up an inflatable pool to make up for a missed vacation by the sea after Ramadan. “There was too much fear for us to leave our house,” says the 34-year-old father of eight. “So I brought them this pool.” The Palestinian family faces possible eviction from their home in the Silwan district of East Jerusalem because an Israeli settler organization sued, claiming the land had been owned by a Jewish trust more than a century ago. The United Nations estimates that 970 Palestinians in the city are threatened with eviction due to cases brought mainly by settler organizations. PHOTOGRAPH BY TANYA HABJOUQA
In mid-September, 15,000 migrants converged under a bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio. Many were Haitians who had left Haiti for countries in Latin America years ago. Some had heard that the crossing on the Rio Grande was open to immigrants, which it wasn’t. Others misunderstood the temporary protected status recently granted to Haitians already in the U.S. and thought it would apply to them. Mounted U.S. Border Patrol agents tried to force migrants back across the river into Mexico. Images of their aggressive tactics provoked outrage and an investigation. The Border Patrol put the agents on administrative duties and temporarily halted horse patrols along the river. PHOTOGRAPH BY VICTORIA RAZO
In Myanmar’s largest city, members of the LGBTQ community gathered to protest the recent military coup. The leading civilian party had won a November 2020 parliamentary election; the military disputed the results. On February 1, just before the new parliament was to be seated, the military seized control. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets. Photographer Yu Yu Myint Than superimposed portraits of protesters over images from the protests. Although more than a thousand people have been killed by the junta, resistance to the regime continues. “Rather than being scared, I’m angry,” says this 30-year-old businessperson and activist, who is not being identified for their safety.PHOTOGRAPH BY YU YU MYINT THAN
“I’m a minority from Rakhine state. I’ve faced discrimination all my life,” says this 28-year-old research consultant. “We need a new federal system that gives real power to ethnic minorities. That’s what I’m protesting for.” The consultant was photographed at a demonstration where people burned copies of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which gave the military significant political power.PHOTOGRAPH BY YU YU MYINT THAN
A century after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a ceremony was held to honor the unknown dead. As many as 300 Black people were killed when whites rampaged through Greenwood, a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa. More than a thousand homes and 141 businesses were destroyed. Nearly 10,000 people—almost all of Tulsa’s Black population—were left homeless. The potential generational wealth lost—and never repaid—is estimated at $611 million in today’s dollars. Archaeologists have unearthed one mass grave, but the burial places of most victims remain unknown.PHOTOGRAPH BY BETHANY MOLLENKOF
People protesting the shooting death of Daunte Wright kneel outside the police department in Brooklyn Center. Wright, who was Black, was stopped by police for an expired car registration during the nearby trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who eventually was convicted of murdering George Floyd. Wright, 20, had an outstanding warrant, so police moved to detain him. When Wright stepped back into his driver’s seat, Officer Kimberly Potter shot him, claiming she mistook her gun for her Taser. She has been charged with manslaughter. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER
In a year filled with challenges, there were encouraging gains toward preserving natural and cultural treasures. Efforts to save vulnerable species, protect oceans, and honor the past reflected our hopes, and our humanity.
In an ambitious scientific-adventure expedition, Alex Honnold sets the first course up Weiassipu, one of a series of tabletop mountains called tepuis that rise above the jungle at the intersection of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela. Millions of years of erosion created these hard-to-reach worlds, where species have evolved in isolation from their cousins on the tepuis around them. As climate change and chytrid fungus threaten amphibians worldwide, herpetologist and National Geographic Explorer Bruce Means, assisted by Honnold and others, is leading a quest to identify new species here. The aim: to understand how these amphibians have adapted to their ecosystem, before they disappear. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENAN OZTURK
Meibae, a three-year-old orphan at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, in Kenya, chugs a bottle grasped in his coiled trunk. The calves used to drink human infant formula, but the coronavirus lockdown made it difficult for staff members to travel from the remote sanctuary to the town of Nanyuki to buy it. Instead, they developed their own, based on goat milk from neighboring pastoralists. It’s nutritious, cheaper, and a way for Reteti to contribute to the local economy. This creative solution forms stronger ties between villagers and elephants, encouraging a peaceful coexistence.PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE
A gray seal surfaces in waters off New England. Depleted since the late 1800s by hunting, seal populations rebounded after the enactment of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY
Giraffes move through Chobe National Park, in Botswana, at sunset. Because most giraffe habitats in Africa are outside protected areas, urban development, crop growing, and livestock grazing are isolating the animals into smaller, more fragmented populations. As a result, extinction threatens the world’s tallest land mammal, whose numbers are about 68,000 adults and falling. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CHANCELLOR
As the family of 16 Asian elephants started moving north, no one knew where they were heading, or why. At first, no one thought much about it. Elephants sometimes stray beyond the boundaries of Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, but they always return.
Not this time.
Over the course of 16 months they crop-raided, mud-bathed, and road-tripped 300 miles north to the provincial capital of Kunming, a sprawling city of eight million people. Along the way they became global celebrities—and presented a conundrum for government officials. The elephants were racking up about a half million dollars in damage, and there was the ever present risk of an elephant charging a curious onlooker.
The simple answer would be to tranquilize the giant mammals and transport them back to the reserve.
But that would be risky for this group, especially the three calves. Instead, officials mobilized an emergency task force to keep everyone, elephants and humans alike, safe. Drones tracked the elephants’ every move. Tons of corn, pineapples, and bananas were used as bait to lure them away from towns. Electric fences, road barriers, and new pathways steered them toward safer routes. These measures ultimately involved tens of thousands of people at a cost equal to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a year torn by climate change, conflict, and COVID-19, some might argue that going to extremes to keep a family of elephants safe was wasteful. They might say the same about searching for an undiscovered species of frog on never before climbed mountains, or building new museums, or stuffing mortar into the eroding cracks of Stonehenge’s prehistoric megaliths.
But conserving our natural and human heritage—like efforts to cure disease and stop war—is about nurturing good in the world. We need wildlife and ancient artifacts, just as we need health and peace. They’re the backdrop against which our lives take place, and they help us make sense of our own stories. They provide the context for our existence. They’re our past, present, and future.
It’s not a zero-sum game, anyway. We can protect elephants and develop vaccines. We can stabilize Stonehenge and provide disaster relief. The year 2021 is proof of that.
Conservation efforts have been bright spots in an otherwise dark year. That’s not to say the biodiversity crisis has passed. Plant and animal species are still disappearing at an alarming rate; ecosystems are still unraveling. And we must acknowledge the damage inflicted by everything from climate change to bombs on millennia-old historic sites.
But we’ve also done much to protect the world’s heritage. We’ve moved Atlantic bluefin tuna off the global endangered species list. We’ve reconsidered plans for oil drilling in an Arctic refuge. We’ve seen thousands of looted artifacts returned to Iraq and sacred objects given back to the Arrernte people in central Australia. And we’ve safely persuaded a family of elephants on a long, perilous journey to turn homeward.
“As 2021 comes to an end, I am scared about the state of nature but also hopeful,” says National Geographic Explorer Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health. Her group is a Ugandan nonprofit that promotes gorilla conservation, community health, and sustainable livelihoods for people who live near national parks and reserves.
“I am scared because the threats to nature are increasing,” she says, but “I am hopeful because the extreme weather patterns we are experiencing and the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic [are] leading to a heightened awareness about these risks and the need to do something about them.”
By November the elephants in China had made their way back home and were in good condition, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration said. It’s still not clear why they left in the first place, but one theory is that as elephant numbers in Yunnan Province have increased, the animals have needed to expand their territory.
That could be considered good news for this endangered species. But the story of the elephants’ trek demonstrates something else too: that the world we created and the world nature created are inextricably bound, for better or for worse.
Rachael Bale is the executive editor of National Geographic’s Animals desk. She most recently wrote about cheetah trafficking, for the September 2021 issue.
Even in bleak years, conservationists are bright spots. They work to preserve wild places, protect cultural heritage sites, defend threatened species. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga National Park rangers pioneered the care of orphaned mountain gorillas. Photographer Brent Stirton was there in 2007 when ranger Andre Bauma found an infant gorilla clinging to her dead mother. He named the orphan Ndakasi—and would be her lifelong caregiver. The rangers built, and still run, an orphanage in Virunga for the gorillas. Stirton visited regularly. He was there in September when Ndakasi, dying of an undiagnosed illness, crawled into Bauma’s arms. Via Getty Images PHOTOGRAPH BY BRENT STIRTON
Veterinarian Michael Njoroge (at left), with the Kenya Wildlife Service, examines a nearly unconscious cheetah that likely was injured by another animal. Cosmas Wambua (at right), co-founder of the conservation group Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, and Ljalu Lekalaile, a ranger, prepare to assist. The team spent three days trying—unsuccessfully—to save the cheetah. Rangers had named her Nichole, after photographer Nichole Sobecki, a National Geographic Explorer who documented the cat’s plight. Fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs remain in the wild, so conservationists are going to great lengths to help each one survive. PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLE SOBECKI
An eastern black-tailed rattlesnake sits coiled on a log by the side of a road in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Rattlesnakes long have been killed indiscriminately in the United States out of fear and misguided hatred. But they’re important predators that help control rodent numbers, and rattlesnake venom is studied for potential medical uses—including in cancer and even COVID-19 research. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAVIER AZNAR GONZÁLEZ DE RUEDA
Ocean conservation has lagged behind efforts on land, but in 2021 there were big gains near shore and at sea. Aiding that effort was the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project, part of a global target to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.
Protections on the high seas are a multinational challenge, but in 2021 nine nations and the European Union began enforcing a treaty that bans commercial fishing in Arctic international waters for 16 years. Scientists want to study the region before ice melt could lead to more fishing and mining. The agreement doubles the territory protected from fishing in international waters.
CAN WE GET TO 30 PERCENT?
Trend needed to hit 30% by 2030
Reaching this goal will require a variety of solutions, including MPAs, international treaties, and the involvement of previously underrepresented groups. The world’s 370 million Indigenous people—who oversee lands and waters accounting for 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity—are a growing influence.
Lawson Parker and Shelley Sperry. NGM Maps.
Sources: Marine Protection Atlas, Marine Conservation Institute; Pristine Seas,
National Geographic Society; marineregions.org
Members of a wedding party made up of local tribesmen loyal to Yemen’s government visit the ruins of the Awwam Temple, in Marib, to take photos. The ancient temple is one of the most important surviving monuments of the Kingdom of Saba, which ruled southern Arabia from about the 11th century B.C. to the third century A.D. and has been linked by some historians to the biblical land of Sheba. The antiquities, on the edge of the most hotly contested part of Yemen, remain at risk as Iran-backed Houthi rebels continue their fight to take over Marib. PHOTOGRAPH BY MOISES SAMAN
The boyish face of King Tutankhamun greets visitors at the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo. This life-size model, which may have served as a mannequin to display royal robes or jewelry, is one of more than 5,000 treasures from the young pharaoh’s tomb that are being restored and prepared for display at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, planned to open in late 2022. An international team of scholars at the museum’s conservation laboratory is restoring a steady stream of artifacts from across the country. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAOLO VERZONE
Sudanese tourists climb Jabal Barkal, a sacred butte overlooking pyramids built during the Kingdom of Kush, which dominated the political and cultural landscape of northeastern Africa from about the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. A new generation of Sudanese has revived and embraced this ancient history as a unifying force that cuts across diverse ethnic and racial lines as the country emerges from a 30-year dictatorship. However, the military’s dissolution of the transitional government in late October threatened Sudan’s progress toward stability. PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLE SOBECKI
Stonehenge, built some 5,000 years ago in southern England, first underwent conservation work in 1901 after one of the sarsens and its lintel fell—a concern for public safety. Preservation in September involved repairing cracks and repacking joints with mortar to stabilize the stones and protect them from erosion. Two months earlier, a judge had ruled that plans to move the nearby highway underground to reduce traffic and noise were unlawful, suspending a project many archaeologists worried would destroy undiscovered artifacts. Photographer Reuben Wu layered 11 exposures taken over 30 minutes to create the lighting effects in this image. PHOTOGRAPH BY REUBEN WU