The Year in Climate Photos

From the president’s desk to protests and disasters around the world, photos showed climate change is always easy to see but sometimes hard to look at.

Evacuated resident April Phillips wipes her face while watching a family dog at an evacuation center for the Dixie Fire at Lassen Community College in Susanville, California on Aug. 6, 2021. Phillips and her family were living in their cars and were told it would be at least 10 days before they could return home during the second-worst wildfire in California's history. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Evacuated resident April Phillips wipes her face while watching a family dog at an evacuation center for the Dixie Fire at Lassen Community College in Susanville, California on Aug. 6, 2021. Phillips and her family were living in their cars and were told it would be at least 10 days before they could return home during the second-worst wildfire in California's history. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Share this article

JANUARY

President Biden Rejoins Paris Agreement and Kills Keystone XL on Day 1 of His Administration

Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders at his desk in the White House after being sworn in as president on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. The raft of orders he signed to launch his administration included a decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord and an order to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders at his desk in the White House after being sworn in as president on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. The raft of orders he signed to launch his administration included a decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord and an order to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden, who ran on the most progressive and comprehensive climate plan of any presidential candidate in history, took the oath of office just before noon on Jan. 20 outside a Capitol building that had been ransacked just two weeks earlier by a Trump-supporting mob. 

Related: Biden Cancels Keystone XL, Halts Drilling in Arctic Refuge on Day One, Signaling a Larger Shift Away From Fossil Fuels

That Wednesday evening, the new president signed executive orders aimed at aggressively fighting climate change—something Trump glaringly failed to do.

From revoking the Keystone XL pipeline permit to rejoining the Paris climate agreement, the sweeping directives laid a road map for the work ahead on the climate crisis.


FEBRUARY

An Indian Glacier Burst Leaves 200 Dead or Missing

National Disaster Response Force personnel carry the body of a victim who died in the massive floods caused after a glacier broke off the Dhauli Ganga river, near Raini village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in India, on Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
National Disaster Response Force personnel carry the body of a victim who died in the massive floods caused after a glacier broke off the Dhauli Ganga river, near Raini village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in India, on Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A glacier in northern India caused a massive landslide on Feb. 7, leaving 200 people missing or dead and ripping through two hydroelectric dam projects, where many of the victims were working.

Scientists had long warned that hydropower projects were dangerous in the fragile region, which is made more vulnerable by global warming. But the Indian government overrode the objections of experts and the protests of local residents and blasted rocks to build the projects anyway, The New York Times reported on Feb. 8.

Health and Environmental Crises Lead to Shutdown of a Virgin Islands Refinery 

The Limetree Bay refinery is seen from above in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The facility has  caused oil to rain down on homes, contaminated drinking water and released hazardous fumes so pungent that officials shut down schools and offices for days. Credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Limetree Bay refinery is seen from above in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The facility has  caused oil to rain down on homes, contaminated drinking water and released hazardous fumes so pungent that officials shut down schools and offices for days. Credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After shutting down in 2012 and declaring bankruptcy in 2015, St. Croix’s Limetree Bay refinery restarted operations under new ownership in February 2021. But within days, the refinery began experiencing what became a series of high-profile accidents that enraged nearby residents.

Related: Plans to Reopen St. Croix’s Limetree Refinery Have Analysts Surprised and Residents Concerned

The Environmental Protection Agency found that Limetree was in violation of the Clean Air Act and ordered the facility to halt operations, citing an “imminent” health threat to residents. Then this summer, Limetree’s owners declared bankruptcy and announced the facility would cease operations for good. Now, many St. Croix residents fear the plant could reopen as the owners prepare to sell it off.

The Texas Deep Freeze and Energy Crisis

Marie Maybou melts snow on her kitchen stove on Feb. 19 in Austin, Texas. Maybou was using the water to flush the toilets in her home after the city water stopped running. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Marie Maybou melts snow on her kitchen stove on Feb. 19 in Austin, Texas. Maybou was using the water to flush the toilets in her home after the city water stopped running. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Frigid cold temperatures took out power for millions of Texans in mid-February. For days, people huddled under blankets and charged phones and computers in their cars. In the panic of the crisis, some, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, blamed the massive blackouts on the shift to clean energy, when the crux of the problem was, in fact, the extreme weather, ICN clean energy reporter Dan Gearino reported during the crisis. 

Related: The Right and Wrong Lessons from the Texas Crisis

The blustery conditions were so extreme that every major source of electricity was affected, and fossil fuel-generated energy saw much greater disruptions from the freeze than clean energy sources.

“It’s very, very easy to recognize failure as an indication that you’re going the wrong way, when it might be more about just the fact that we’re still learning how to do this.”

— Emily Grubert, an energy systems researcher at Georgia Tech

MARCH

Southeast Australia Hit With Record Floods After 4 Days of Rain

People ride their bicycles through a flooded park on the banks of the Nepean River outside of Sydney, Australia, on March 21, 2021. The region experienced its worst floods in over 60 years, after a torrent of rainfall dropped as much as two feet of water on areas around Australia’s most populated city. Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

APRIL

First Indigenous Cabinet Secretary Visits the Land of Her Ancestors

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other political leaders, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, tour the ancient dwellings along the Butler Wash trail in the Bears Ears National Monument on April 8, 2021, near Blanding, Utah. Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to become a cabinet secretary, became the new president’s top public lands official in 2021, overseeing 244 million acres. She has deep roots in Bears Ears, land that was once inhabited by her Pueblo ancestors and is now a national monument that was in limbo during the Trump administration. 

Related: The First Native American Cabinet Secretary Visits the Land of Her Ancestors and Sees Firsthand the Obstacles to Compromise 

In April, Haaland visited the monument with sovereign tribes, marking a new chapter in the struggle over managing public lands. On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden directed the Interior Secretary to advise him on changing the boundaries and the management of Bears Ears and two other national monuments, the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, off the coast of Maine.

Biden and World Leaders Gather (Virtually) to Make Climate Pledges

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (front) and special climate envoy John Kerry (right) listen while President Joe Biden speaks during a climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on April 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (front) and special climate envoy John Kerry (right) listen while President Joe Biden speaks during a climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on April 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Related: Jobs and Technology Take Center Stage at Friday’s Summit, With Biden Pitching Climate Action as a Boon for the Economy 

President Joe Biden marked the nation’s re-entry into the Paris climate agreement with a virtual summit of 40 world leaders on Earth Day, April 22. During the event, the United States pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half, China promised to begin phasing down its coal consumption and Brazil said it would end illegal deforestation.

“No nation can solve this crisis on our own. All of us, all of us—and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies—we have to step up.” 

— President Biden, addressing leaders at the virtual climate summit

MAY

Shell Ordered to Cut Emissions by Nearly Half by 2030

Demonstrators hold smoke flares as they take part in an action called by the global environmental activism organization Extinction Rebellion and Dutch climate activist group Code Rood, at the Shell headquarters in The Hague, on May 18, 2021 to protest against the oil company’s weak emissions-reduction policies. A rebellion of shareholders during the company’s annual meeting in May pressured it to increase the ambition of its emissions reduction plans. A landmark ruling by The Hague District Court later that month, which was hailed by climate activists as “game-changing,” ordered Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45 percent from 2019 levels by 2030. Although the verdict is only legally binding in the Netherlands, the ruling could influence dozens of similar cases around the world, including in the United States. Credit: Bart Maat/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Related: Dutch Court Gives Shell Nine Years to Cut Its Carbon Emissions by 45 Percent from 2019 Levels


JUNE

Thousands Protest Line 3, But Its Construction Is Completed Anyway

Demonstrators cross a bridge over the Mississippi River during a “Treaty People Gathering” protest in Clearwater County, Minnesota, on June 7, 2021. Credit: Nicole Neri/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Thousands of protesters gathered in northern Minnesota in early June for a four-day demonstration against the Line 3 pipeline replacement project, a 1,000-mile-long oil pipeline constructed by Enbridge Energy to deliver energy-intensive Canadian crude from the tar sands of Alberta to the Midwest. 

Related: Line 3 Drew Thousands of Protesters to Minnesota This Summer. Last Week, Enbridge Declared the Pipeline Almost Finished 

Although this summer’s protesters slowed construction of Line 3 when they chained themselves to pipeline construction equipment, the project went on and is now up and running. Many had hoped the Biden administration would intervene, as it did with the Keystone XL pipeline in January. Those hopes were dashed after the Department of Justice filed a legal brief in late June that defended the project.

“I drove people to the polls for you, Joe Biden. I drove people to the polls who had never, never voted in their lives. We believed in you.”

— Winona LaDuke, a Native activist who fought the Line 3 replacement project for seven years

Unprecedented Heat Bakes the Pacific Northwest

Austun Wilde rests with her two dogs, Bird Is The Wurd and Fenrir, at a cooling center in the Oregon Convention Center on June 27, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Record breaking temperatures lingered over the Northwest during a historic heatwave in late June. Credit: Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Devastation from wildfires in Lytton, British Columbia, that burned in early July, seen on Sept. 1, 2021. Credit: Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

In late June, temperatures across most of Oregon and Washington spiked 20 to 30 degrees Celsius above normal. Hundreds died after suffering from heat-related illnesses in the region. Lytton, British Columbia, broke the Canadian high temperature record on three successive days,  finally reaching 121 degrees Fahrenheit, far hotter than any temperature ever recorded in Canada. Hours later, a wildfire destroyed 90 percent of the village of 300 people.

Related: A Week After the Pacific Northwest Heat Wave, Study Shows it Was ‘Almost Impossible’ Without Global Warming 

Scientists quickly concluded that the sky-high temperatures that were so unusual for the region would almost certainly have been impossible to reach without human-caused global warming.


JULY

Climate Change Fuels Deadly Floods in Germany 

Jutta Schelleckes, 72, sits in the living room of her apartment, which was destroyed by the July 17, 2021 flood in Bad Neuenahr, Germany. Credit: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Nearly 200 people were killed in the floods that washed away centuries-old towns in northeastern Germany after extreme rainfall hit the region in mid-July. Scientists conducted a rapid attribution analysis shortly after the deluge, and found that global warming made the flooding between 1.2 and 9 times more likely, and made rainstorms in the region 3 percent to 19 percent more intense.

“The German language hardly knows any words for the devastation that has been caused here.”

— Angela Merkel, then-Chancellor of Germany at a news conference near the destruction

Related: In a Summer of Deadly Deluges, New Research Shows How Global Warming Fuels Flooding 

Hundreds Die in China Floods

Broken vehicles piled up in a flooded street of Mihe town in Gongyi, Henan Province of China on July 21, 2021. More than 300 people died as homes collapsed, metro stations filled with water and trains full of commuters flooded, the New York Times reported. Credit: Zhang Ziwang/Nanfang Daily/Southern Visual/VCG via Getty Images

Heat, Drought and Fire in the Russian Arctic 

This aerial picture taken on July 27, 2021, shows the smoke rising from a forest fire outside the village of Berdigestyakh, in the republic of Sakha, Siberia. Hundreds of fires burned across the region during the hot and dry summer. Credit: Dimitar Dilkof/AFP via Getty Images

AUGUST

Southwest Turkey Burns in Nation’s Worst Fires Ever 

Men gather sheep to take them away from an advancing fire on Aug. 2, 2021 in southwest Turkey, as the country faces what its president called the worst wildfires in its history. Credit: Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images

A severe heat wave and drought in Turkey was followed by deadly wildfires that burned near the country’s southwest coast in late July and early August. At least eight people were killed and thousands were forced to evacuate, including many tourists enjoying Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. The heat intensity from the blazes was four times higher than the previous daily maximum—“off the scale” of anything seen in the last two decades in the country, the Guardian reported

Fires also plagued neighboring Greece during the country’s worst heat wave in 30 years

Related: The Fires That Raged on This Greek Island Are Out. Now Northern Evia Faces a Long Road to Recovery

A Water Supply Crisis on the Colorado River

A “bathtub ring” is visible at sunset from the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada border with Arizona as the western drought dropped water levels in the Lake Mead reservoir to historic lows during the summer of 2021. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

A two-decade trend of drying and warming left the Colorado River tapped out late in the summer. The 1,450-mile-long river supplies water for 40 million people in the Southwest, irrigates crops in seven U.S. states and two in Mexico and provides hydroelectric power to the region.

Scientists say the only way forward is to rein in demands on the river’s water to match its decline. But who will be forced to use less? That’s a question that water managers are facing in the years ahead as the dry trend continues. 

Related: A Crisis Of Water And Power On The Colorado River 

Nearly a Million Acres Burn in Dixie Fire

A utility worker uses a hose to extinguish fire near power poles as the Dixie Fire moves through the area on Aug. 16, 2021 near Janesville, California.  The fire burned nearly 1 million acres this summer, making it the second-largest conflagration in the state’s history, second only to the August Complex of the previous year. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Dixie Fire started burning in northeastern California, just south of Lake Tahoe, on July 13, 2021. After more than 100 days, firefighters finally contained the blaze that destroyed more than 1,000 structures and burned most of the historic town of Greenville, California. Investigators are still working to determine what caused the massive fire, but Pacific Gas & Electric has said its equipment may be to blame.

Related: Exploding California Wildfires Rekindle Debate Over Whether to Snuff Out Blazes in Wilderness Areas or Let Them Burn

Hurricane Ida Rips Across the Country, Causing Devastation From Louisiana to New England

Workers remove a tree from the roof of a mobile home that it fell on during Hurricane Ida on Aug. 31, 2021 in Houma, Louisiana. Ida made landfall Aug. 29 as a Category 4 storm southwest of New Orleans. The storm struck exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, putting the state’s new coastal protections to the test. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Related: Amid the Misery of Hurricane Ida, Coastal Restoration Offers Hope. But the Price Is High 

Related: After Ida, Louisiana Struggles to Tally the Environmental Cost. Activists Say Officials Must Do Better 

A woman walks through a flooded street in Hoboken, New Jersey the morning after the remnants of Hurricane Ida drenched the New York City and New Jersey area on Sept. 2, 2021. Dozens were killed in the region as cars submerged in flash floods and subways and basements filled with water. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

SEPTEMBER

Biggest Direct Air Carbon Capture Facility Begins Operating in Iceland

Fans draw in ambient air at the Climeworks factory at the Hellisheidi power plant near Reykjavík, Iceland. The facility, which opened on Sept. 8, 2021, removes carbon dioxide from the air and stores it underground in the biggest direct air capture project ever done. The facility will store about 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, a tiny fraction of the 33 billion tons of the gas forecast by the International Energy Agency to be emitted worldwide this year, but a demonstration of the technology’s viability, the Financial Times reported. Credit: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images

Related: Biggest ‘Direct Air Capture’ Plant Starts Pulling in Carbon, But Involves a Fraction of the Gas in the Atmosphere 


OCTOBER

Climate Activists Arrested at the Department of Interior

Police officers escort a protester out of the Department of Interior building after a sit-in held by climate activists on Oct. 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The protest was part of the People vs. Fossil Fuels week-long Indigenous-led demonstrations in the nation’s capital that resulted in hundreds of arrests. Protesters called on President Biden to declare a national climate emergency and stop approving fossil fuel projects, such as the Line 3 pipeline. Credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Related: Indigenous Climate Activists Arrested After ‘Occupying’ US Department of Interior


NOVEMBER

Nations Talk Climate in Glasgow; Activists Call for More

Demonstrators join the Fridays For Future march on Nov. 5, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland outside the COP26 site. Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

At the widely anticipated United Nations’ COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, countries agreed to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent, halt global deforestation by 2030 and potentially reduce the “unabated” consumption of coal

Related: COP Negotiators Demand Nations do More to Curb Climate Change, but Required Emissions Cuts Remain Elusive 

Yet despite the agreement reached in Glasgow, the world is still on a path to warming about 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and climate activists were not pleased with the final deal that was signed. Thousands of mostly young people demonstrated outside the building where COP26 was held on Friday, Nov. 5, led by youth climate activist icon Greta Thunberg.

Related: In Glasgow, COP26 Negotiators Do Little to Cut Emissions, but Allow Oil and Gas Executives to Rest Easy 

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks on stage at George Square after joining demonstrators during the Fridays For Future COP26 Scotland March on Nov. 5, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks on stage at George Square after joining demonstrators during the Fridays For Future COP26 Scotland March on Nov. 5, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

“No more blah, blah, blah. No more whatever the f—k they’re doing inside there.” 

— Greta Thunberg, speaking to a crowd of climate protesters on Nov. 2 outside the COP26 climate talks

Deforestation Continues in the Amazon, Despite Pledges to Stop It

Flames consuming a piece of the Amazon rainforest on the property of rancher Jaim Teixeira. Credit: Larry C. Price
Flames consuming a piece of the Amazon rainforest on the property of rancher Jaim Teixeira. Credit: Larry C. Price

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro signed onto a global pact to end deforestation by 2030 and restore degraded forests during the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The country is home to the Amazon rainforest, which stores billions of tons of carbon, helping to stabilize the atmosphere and provide a counterweight to global warming.

Yet critics of the agreement said the agreement lacks teeth and green-lights at least another decade of unabated logging that will further harm the climate. That made it easy for countries with critical forests and high rates of deforestation, like Brazil, to sign on.

Related: The Amazon is the Planet’s Counterweight to Global Warming, a Place of Stupefying Richness Under Relentless Assault

This year, deforestation in Brazil had risen—yet again—over the previous year. Advocacy groups, Indigenous tribes and some of the world’s most prominent human rights lawyers tie the destruction to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies and rhetoric, believing the president should be prosecuted. Bolsonaro’s role in destroying the Amazon, they believe, makes him a criminal on a par with genocidal dictators or the architects of war crimes. 

“A vast amount of carbon would be converted from organic matter into carbon dioxide and that would add to the carbon dioxide we’re already putting into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. That would be a catastrophe for humanity and for everything else.”

— Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist with Colorado State University, on what would happen if the world lost the Amazon rainforest

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Includes Funds for Climate Resilience

President Joe Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as he is surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The $1.2 trillion package includes funds for climate resilience, like preparing for floods, wildfires and droughts, and support to improve solid waste management and recycling services. Credit: Kenny Holston/Getty Images

Related: Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Includes Money for Recycling, But the Debate Over Plastics Rages On  


DECEMBER

Protesters Demonstrate Against Shell Seismic Tests in South Africa

Demonstrators carry a giant puppet of a Snoek, a common type of local mackerel, as hundreds of people take part in a protest in Cape Town on Dec. 5, 2021 against the plan by Royal Dutch Shell to conduct underwater seismic surveys to look for oil along South Africa’s popular Wild Coast. On Dec. 3, a South African court struck down an environmentalist-led effort to stop Shell from conducting the surveys. Environmentalists and fishermen say Shell’s plan poses a danger to marine animals on the beloved coast. Credit: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

Winter Tornado Cluster Tears Through Central U.S. 

Bogdan Gaicki surveys tornado damage on Dec. 12, 2021, in Mayfield, Kentucky. The eastern Kentucky town sustained some of the worst damage from the storm system that struck five states. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

A cluster of tornadoes tore through five central U.S. states from the night of Dec. 10 into the morning of Dec. 11. At least 88 people were killed as the storm ripped through the region, causing buildings to collapse, including an Amazon warehouse where six workers died, and a candle factory, where eight workers’ bodies were recovered.

The connection between climate change and tornadoes is not yet clear, but a recent study showed that for every 1 degree Celsius of warming, conditions favorable to breeding severe storms and tornadoes increase between 5 and 20 percent. 

Related: Global Warming Can Set The Stage for Deadly Tornadoes

Just a few days later, high winds, warm temperatures and severe storms pushed through the Great Plains and the Midwest in another unseasonable burst of meteorological catastrophes. 

An overturned truck pushed high power lines over along Highway 93 as high winds created havoc along the front range on Dec. 15, 2021 in Superior, Colorado. Credit: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images