1. Historic Drought
"There seems to be no relief in sight as the calendar flips over to 2014," the U.S. Drought Monitor pronounced of the West's parched conditions on January 7, after 2013 went down as (then) California's driest year on record. Days later, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a "drought State of Emergency," and as the year rolled on, more than 80 percent of the state found itself locked in "extreme or exceptional drought" (blood-red and fire-engine-red in the maps above, respectively).
As the above maps show, California only dried further as the year went on. The damages were severe: The state's agricultural industry—which produces half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S.— lost $1.5 billion in revenue, with some 17,100 seasonal and part-time farm workers losing their jobs. Overall, the economic cost to California so far is estimated at $2.2 billion. And so much groundwater is gone that the state is actually shrinking in mass. "The nation’s produce basket may come up dry in the future if it continues to treat [groundwater] reserves like an unlimited savings account," a July report from U.C. Davis warned. It's uncertain how long California's drought will last, but some reports predict a century.
2. Strange Games
The XXII Winter Olympics Games took place in February in Sochi, Russia, amid concerns that temperatures (a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day) would stymie many sports. But as the map above, from the United Kingdom's official travel site, shows, the coastal city is also a stone's throw from the disputed Abkhazia region of Georgia, a scant 300 miles from the capital of Chechnya, and a day's journey across the Black Sea from Crimea. While fears of terror activity during the games never materialized, the 2014 Olympics served to reintroduce the world to a region that would become increasingly volatile and important in the months ahead.
3. Crisis in Ukraine
In February, then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych stepped down under big time pressure from pro-European demonstrators and fled his own country. Yet within days, Russian troops began seizing government buildings in Crimea, eventually occupying the entire region. The Ukrainian government responded with low-level attacks against separatists and their Russian support. Today, the worst of the violence has eased, but Crimea, one of the most heavily Russian-speaking regions of Eastern Ukraine, remains annexed—and could soon house Russia's nuclear weapons.
4. A Tragic MysteryOn March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, bound for Beijing. Famously, it never made it. A multinational search effort began in the the Gulf of Thailand, moved on to the South China Sea, and then dipped farther south, as far down as Australia. The map above, produced by the good people of Reddit, is a cartographical representation of how many of us felt in March: paranoid, and mostly confused. We still don't know where the plane is. If anything, the tragedy taught us about the limits of technology, how big the ocean truly is, and how remarkable it is that the vast majority of commercial flights begin and end with no trouble at all.
5. Modi Wins
"Narendra Modi, a self-made politician who sold tea at train stations as a young man, [has] led the Bharatiya Janata Party into a mammoth victory," wrote Quartz India on May 17. Modi's election was historic in more than one way: He spearheaded the right-wing BJP's unprecedented absolute majority, with over 280 seats in India's 543-member parliament. And at over 65 percent, voter turnout was the highest in India electoral history since 1951, chalked up largely to the Modi campaign's social media tactics. With some 537 million votes cast, it was the largest election in human history.
6. An Expensive CupMassive protests against, among other things, the Brazilian government's tremendous spending on infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup began in earnest the year before, and spread to all 12 participating Brazilian cities (and an estimated 88 more) by the summer event's end. The country poured an estimated $11.3 billion into venues and other improvements ahead of the global soccer tournament, a process that killed at least eight construction workers. Today, the world's architectural minds are still trying to figure out what to do with all those stadiums, hotels and facilities. Stuff them with prefabricated affordable housing, perhaps?
7. Ferguson Explodes
The shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, tore open the St. Louis region's stark racial divides. Mutual distrust between overwhelmingly white law enforcement and black residents spurred riots, stand-offs, and more police violence—this time involving military-grade equipment.
By August 11, the turmoil in Ferguson was a national debate, and by the end of the week, it was an international outrage. That's when Twitter generated this incredible light-show of a map, using every geotagged tweet that mentioned the city from around the world. Ferguson's heat did not stop there: After a grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November, actions and protests broke out across the country, and continue this month. Here's the Twitter heat-map that followed that decision.
8. Ebola Panic
The world's most widespread Ebola outbreak actually began in Guinea at the close of 2013. But global media coverage picked up significantly this summer and reached a fever pitch in the U.S. this fall, when a Liberian man died of the disease in a Dallas hospital.
The map at right, which went viral on social media this fall, doesn't cover every country affected by Ebola—there have been much smaller outbreaks in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Spain and, of course, the U.S. But Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have seen a thousand times more deaths than those other nations, a fact that is still difficult to comprehend for many who can barely find them on a map. It's those countries that continue to need support, medical and otherwise, even as the cameras slowly disappear.
9. Marriage and Marijuana
2014 was a remarkable year for supporters of same-sex marriage and the liberalization of marijuana use. Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia each voted to legalize pot in November, adding up to 32 states that have either legalized recreational or medicinal use of the drug (Though Congress and D.C. are set for a showdown over the future of the District's law). Plus, language inserted into a massive spending bill approved by the Senate in mid-December effectively ends federal drug raids on medical marijuana facilities. The Department of Justice also issued a memo preventing feds from interfering with marijuana growth or sales on Native American lands.
This year was also the "beginning of the end for the fight" for marriage equality, as Rebecca Nelson wrote in National Journal. In June, Illinois legalized same-sex marriage with the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness act. In October, the Supreme Court rejected same-sex marriage appeals from five states, a crucial tipping point: Most Americans now live in a state where same-sex couples can tie the knot (though only a minority can smoke pot at the same time).
10. Uber Trouble
It was a banner year for Uber, the ride-hailing service supposedly now worth $41 billion. At the end of 2014 Uber is operating in 53 countries and more than 200 cities, with more, certainly, to come.
But the year has also seen a number of cities pushing back against the company, and a handful of PR dust-ups caused some to delete their apps in disgust. The map above, from the beginning of December, shows that the Uber wars have spread all over the world, too. Next year will almost certainly see continued expansion for the service, but we're not sure how many people will still be rooting for it.
11. Black and Blue Lives Matter
In November, a grand jury declined to indict St. Louis County police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Just two weeks later, a Staten Island grand jury decided against indicting NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for placing Eric Garner, a black man suspected of selling loose cigarettes, in an illegal chokehold, which killed him. In response, the largest number of Americans since the Occupy and Iraq War protests took to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality. Now just this week, two NYPD officers were shot and killed in an apparent targeted ambush.
One of the big problems the U.S. faces in addressing these escalating tensions is a shocking lack of data. As Richard Florida writes, federal, state and local data collection on these issues is woefully incomplete, meaning the map above is barely accurate. Two weeks ago, Congress finally passed a bill that will require local law enforcement agencies to report on their involvement in deaths and injuries.
12. Obamacare Is Working
Since Congress passed it in 2010, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, has faced challenges in the Supreme Court, the 2012 elections, and its disastrous online marketplace roll-out in 2013. But this year, as the biggest parts of the law went into effect, including individual and employer mandates, Obamacare looks like a success by several measures. Some 10 million Americans chose health care plans on the federal marketplace in 2014, and as of mid-December, another 2.5 million had signed up for 2015. Overall, the percentage of uninsured Americans dropped from 16.4 percent in 2013 to 11.3 in 2014. As the New York Times reports, rural Arkansas and Nevada, southern Texas, large areas in New Mexico, Kentucky and West Virginia, and plenty of inland California and Oregon saw the biggest drops, as the above map reveals.
13. A Changing Minimum WageOne of the quieter but arguably most significant stories of 2014 was the steady upward creep of state and local minimum wages. On January 1, the Washington state community of SeaTac became the first in the nation to embrace a $15 minimum wage, and the sky did not fall. In June, Seattle voted to follow suit, while voters approved San Francisco's $15 ballot measure in November. (Both will take some years to implement.) The interactive map above, from human resources consulting group BLR, shows recent and upcoming minimum wage changes on the state level. Most notable might be that green in traditional red states Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, showing that voters punched through minimum wage raises in those places even as the GOP swept the Senate. Still, the new minimum wage levels (also to be phased in over a number of years) are still well below local median wages in those—and most—states and municipalities.
14. The Only Planet We've Got
The International Panel on Climate Change’s Synthesis Report, released in November, made the bluntest climate prognosis to date: Severe weather, food shortages, and violent conflicts are certain to accelerate if carbon emissions do not fall dramatically within the century. It’s a deeply worrying report, though some hope lies in 2014’s environmental achievements. President Obama ordered the EPA to reduce emissions from power plants by 26 percent in 2020 and 30 percent by 2030. More than 400,000 took to NYC's streets for the People’s Climate March in September. The U.S. and China reached an historic agreement to dramatically cut pollution.
All this set the stage for the U.N. climate talks in Lima this month; however, Lima was fraught with political objectives, slowing progress and disappointing advocates. What is the cost of inaction? The IPCC maps above compare how the world’s surface temperature might look by 2100. Even with substantial mitigation, and by returning to pre-2005 rates of warming, the world could heat up by an average .7º C, or about 1.26º F, as shown in the map of the left. But without any mitigation, and by continuing at the record-breaking rate we’re pumping out emissions currently, we’ll warm by about 5º C, or 9º F. Need context? The average global temperature during the last Ice Age was only about 4-5º C colder than today.