Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A cartographic tour through the year’s biggest stories.
1) All the ways to Cuba
It was December 2014 when President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending more than half a century of economic embargo and political stalemate between the two countries. As a result, throughout 2015 new non-stop flights to Cuba from U.S. cities suddenly appeared, while cruise-ship itineraries quickly tacked on days at the Havana port. The map above, by Cuba Standard reporter Armando Portela, shows the ferry routes proposed by entrepreneurial Floridians who snapped up licenses to serve Cuba before officials could even say “go.”
2) Nepal’s devastating earthquake
In April, Kathmandu was near the epicenter of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, Nepal’s deadliest ever. More than 8,500 people perished in the resulting devastation, with more than half a million structures (including centuries-old monuments) demolished in the city and surrounding villages. This map, by the digital cartography firm Esri, compares satellite imagery of the city before and after the earthquake, revealing the extent of the devastation. Like many South Asian cities, Kathmandu has been rapidly urbanizing without strong enforcement of building codes and safety regulations. Experts warn that if cities in developing countries don’t address these types of issues, staggering earthquake death tolls like Nepal’s could become the norm.
3) The spread of ISIS
The self-proclaimed Islamic State expanded the territory under its control in 2015, continuing to take over key cities and oil-rich lands in Iraq and Syria. From its growing, tightly governed base—mapped by the Independent in June— ISIS orchestrated or inspired more than 50 terrorist attacks in at least a dozen countries this year alone.
4) Refugees at sea
More than 920,000 refugees and migrants arrived by sea in Europe this year alone, as this map by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees shows. And those were the ones who made it: A photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler on the Turkish coast “put an unforgettably human face to the tragedies at sea” that killed nearly 4,000 people in 2015, as the L.A. Times wrote. The mounting crisis has left European leaders desperate for solutions, and while a few have set generous quotas for asylum-seekers, most haven’t. Fears that terrorists could use the crisis as cover to travel undetected have stopped many E.U. leaders from responding adequately to what may be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
5) A death in Baltimore
On the morning of April 12, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested in his West Baltimore neighborhood. He died one week later, the result of injuries he sustained while in police custody. The city erupted in protests over another young black man dead at the hands of police, with so many questions unanswered.
Why was Gray arrested at all? Why did officers ignore Gray’s repeated requests for medical attention? And just how pervasive are “rough rides,” a police term for driving erratically with an unsecured suspect in the back of your vehicle, in an attempt to injure them? The 45-minute “rough ride” that Baltimore police allegedly took Freddie Gray on was mapped by Mashable, above.
6) Marriage equality in 50 states
No more patchwork: On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the ruling that forced the entire country to recognize same-sex marriages. The map above shows the U.S. states where same-sex marriage is now legal, marked in green.
7) The staying power of Donald Trump
As of this writing, Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is enjoying his largest post-debate polling lead to date. He’s also crushing other GOP hopefuls in Internet search trends—even more so than in August, when Google released this map of top searches for Republican candidates by county. This is the same man who, over the summer, referred to Mexican immigrants to the U.S. as “rapists” and the Huffington Post deemed too comical a candidate to cover in its politics section. 2015: The year we realized no one knows anything about U.S. national politics anymore.
8) Volkswagen’s scandal
In September, American regulators revealed that Volkswagen had been selling diesel-engine cars equipped with illegal software designed to cheat emissions tests. The reach was massive: In the U.S. alone, nearly half a million Jettas, Passats and other major VW models were found to emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides than what the EPA permits. Above is a map of the vehicles’ excess nitrogen oxide emissions across the country, published in Environmental Research Letters by researchers who sought to calculate the human costs of the carmaker’s deceit. They estimated roughly 59 early deaths will result from those excess emissions.
9) America’s gun problem
A church in South Carolina. A movie theatre in Louisiana. A TV crew filming in Virginia. A college in Oregon. A Planned Parenthood in Colorado. A county facility in California. To use one metric, the United States experienced more than one mass shooting per day in 2015.
How did the U.S. achieve a gun homicide rate nearly 20 times the average of other developed countries? The map above, created by Reddit user phillybdizzle using data provided by the Guardian, shows firearm ownership rates per 100 people and makes one research-backed answer clear: Americans have more guns than anyone else in the world, plus some of the most relaxed gun laws.
10) An agreement on climate
In December, representatives from 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement, committing for the first time to keep atmospheric warming below 2°C, and to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Forged out of a two-week UN conference dubbed the planet’s “last-chance saloon,” the document hinges on each country’s specified pledge for climate action, required for submission ahead of the summit. As this map by the World Resources Institute shows, 187 countries have now turned in their plans (“Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs, in diplomat-speak), covering 98.6 percent of global emissions.