*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 1, 2021. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
2020 was dominated by two topics: Covid-19 and the US presidential election. Both were (and are) high-stakes and mattered to many, many, many people both here and around the world. No doubt they will both continue to dominate headlines for decades and even centuries to come.
But what about everything else? Like Grogu (“Baby Yoda”) and the discovery of the world’s longest animal? What about all the other things that happened this year that may matter as much (or more) in the long run than the coronavirus and the campaign? Here’s a handcrafted, completely unscientific list of 20 stories and subjects that may come to rise in importance and interest as time goes on. They are in no particular order. Some are global, some are local; some are tragic, some are comic; some are enormous events, some are normal people.
Here are 20 moments to remember from a year most will try to forget.
1. Australian bushfires (June 2019 to May 2020). Lasting about a year, they burned approximately 72,000 square miles, roughly the size of Washington state. These fires collectively destroyed 10,000 buildings, directly killed nearly 3 dozen people, hundreds more indirectly through smoke inhalation, and ended the lives of an astounding 3 billion terrestrial vertebrates (mostly reptiles, but also so many koalas and kangaroos).
2. Brexit (Jan. 31, and ongoing). Great Britain took the official first step to break away from Europe this past January. It is the first and only country to split from Europe, having joined membership in an earlier version of the European Union in 1973.
3. Luxembourg makes public transport free (February). Following some cities, Luxembourg becomes the first country to announce that all public transit will be free for all to use from now on.
4. Negative oil prices (April). In April, a combination of factors including Covid-19 and a recent price war between large oil producing countries led to the world’s first ever negative oil prices. Essentially, because you can’t just stop pumping oil completely and you can’t just pour it out, you’ve got to get rid of it somehow. And since nobody wanted to pay for oil in April, oil producers had to pay a little less than $40 per barrel for others to take their oil.
5. World’s largest solar energy park opens (March). In northwest India, the world’s largest solar energy park opened with 2245 megawatts of capacity. Using estimates from the Solar Energy Industries Association and country consumption rates, that would power approximately 450,000 US homes and nearly 2.7 homes in India.
6. Pentagon releases UFO videos (April). The US Department of Defense, after outside pressure, released three videos taken in 2015 and 2004, captured by Navy pilots in the Pacific Ocean and off the US East Coast, that feature “unidentified aerial phenomena.” The videos include awestruck pilots in shock at what they see. But should we be this surprised? Astronomer Dr. Seth Shostak points out that “our galaxy has about a thousand billion planets,” and that “there are at least a hundred billion other galaxies,” meaning that the universe contains a number of other planets roughly equivalent to the grains of sand on “all the beaches of Earth.”
7. Jeff Bezos becomes the world’s richest person, ever (August). At age 56, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos became the world’s first to reach $200 billion in net worth. According to Forbes, Bezos hit $204.6 billion, which is significantly more than the previous high set by Bill Gates (who in 1999 recorded $158 billion in today’s dollars). Yet, the world took much more notice of Bezos’s ex-wife MacKenzie Scott’s philanthropy than Bezos’s wealth. Scott helped grow Amazon from the beginning and left the marriage with an estimated $40-60 billion. This year, amidst the pandemic, she gave away some $6 billion, considered by many the fastest charitable giveaway of any living donor.
8. First nuclear power plant in the Middle East (August). The Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates went operational, the first nuclear power station in the Arab world, a region more traditionally known for pumping oil. Estimates suggest it will produce 5,600 megawatts, roughly one-fourth of the country’s energy needs.
9. Living longer, much longer (Nov. 22). 60 Minutes highlighted a National Institutes of Health study at the University of California Irvine that has found over the next three decades the number of Americans living past 90 will triple. Researcher Dr. Claudia Kawas says, “Half of all children born today in the United States and Europe is going to reach their 103rd or 104thbirthday.” For many parents, that means their children will reach into the next century.
10. Chinese GPS goes fully operational (June). BeiDou, the Chinese version of satellite navigation, launched the last of the 35 satellites to fill out their navigational system. This joins American GPS, Russian GLONASS, and the European system, Galileo.
11. Western Wildfires and Southeastern Storms (All Year). For the sixth consecutive year, the US had more than 10 billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The first 9 months of 2020 alone tied the annual record of 16, including extreme wildfires in California. Tom Corringham, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has found the direct costs of this year’s California burning in excess of $20 billion.
12. Chris Nikic, you are an Ironman! (Nov. 7). Chris Nikic, a 21-year-old with Down syndrome, who lives with family in the suburbs of Orlando, dipped into the waters near Panama City to compete in Ironman Florida. 16 hours, 46 minutes, 9 seconds later, he crossed the finish line to hear an announcer wail, “you are an Ironman!” just ahead of the 17-hour cutoff. Mark it down in the record books, he’s the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman. “Do not put a lid on me,” he told a reporter. We won’t Chris, we won’t.
13. Carl Reiner passed away (June 29). To younger audiences, he was Saul Bloom in Ocean’s 11, or even “Carl Reineroceros” from Disney/Pixar’s animated short, “Forky Asks a Question: What is Love?” (which won an Emmy). He performed in “What is Love?” alongside his lifelong friend, Mel Brooks, and was on our screens and in fans’ hearts for over seven decades, following his service during World War II. He will be missed.
14. The US Olympic and Paralympic Museum Opens! (July 30). After 3 years of construction, $91 million, the 60,000-square foot museum clad in silvery scales opened. It’s a modern marvel of architecture and stunning monument to Olympians past, present, and future. The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, shines through in the museum’s exhibits with his words and vision for the Games: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
15. Home prices (All Year). According to Rich Laden, writing in these pages, the median price of area homes this past November increased to $380,000, up nearly 17 percent November 2019. And this past June, the monthly average sale price topped the $400,000 mark for the first time ever (posting $401,980).
16. High voter turnout (November). Ok, no election talk…but, can we talk about record voter turnout? Breeanna Jent of the Gazette reported that El Paso County “crushed” previous voter turnout figures with 84.3 percent of eligible voters turning in ballots, up 17 percent from the previous election high. Statewide, nearly 87 percent of Colorado voters cast ballots, also a record.
17. The penguins and hippos landed! (Spring and Summer). The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo opened “Water’s Edge: Africa,” the new exhibit featuring African penguins and hippopotamuses.
18. Pearl Harbor survivor passes (Feb. 15). Navy veteran and Colorado Springs resident Donald Stratton, who served aboard and survived the attack on the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, passed away at age 97.
19. OCC toilet flushes the competition (November). A public toilet in Bancroft Park, Old Colorado City, was named America’s Best Restroom in the Cintas Corporation’s 19th annual competition. The toilet self-cleans after every 30 uses, is almost entirely touchless, and an app notifies attendants whenever supplies run low.
20. You made it (Ongoing). This was a hard year. In the past 10 months, over 1.7 million people around the world and nearly 350,000 Americans have died due to Covid-19, far more than the roughly 290,000 Americans that died in World War II combat. Colorado alone has lost about as many citizens as every person in all of Manitou Springs. If you lost someone, there are no words. To you this was a terrible year. But when you look back on this year, try to push aside 2020’s pain, and reach for the hope that comes with a new year—2021.