Top 10 Nature Images of 2021: Undersea Treasures, Historic Sites, and Reasons for Hope

Our most popular Instagram posts showcase nature—and why it’s worth protecting

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Top 10 Nature Images of 2021: Undersea Treasures, Historic Sites, and Reasons for Hope

In some ways, 2021 has been a promising year for protecting our planet, with progress toward such goals as safeguarding 30% of the ocean by 2030. At the same time, 2021 also reminded us how far we still have to go to secure the health of the natural world.

Here are 10 of the most popular posts from 2021 from our @PewEnvironment Instagram feed—images that showcase some of the year’s largest strides in conservation and critical ecosystems and species that still need our attention.

10. A Southern Ocean Seal

A Weddell seal peers from the surface of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean into an uncertain future. A 2021 report warned that climate change is pushing the region to a tipping point, which may affect global marine and climate systems.

Unfortunately, at its 2021 annual meeting, the body responsible for protecting Southern Ocean wildlife failed to expand needed Antarctic protections.

9. Flocking to the shore

The Delaware Bayshore region attracts 300 to 400 species of migrating birds, including the snowy egret in the first frame above, making it the second-largest shorebird congregation in North America.

People also love the region: A recent study estimated that the leisure and recreation economies alone generate at least several million dollars every year for the watershed’s communities.

(See more Bayshore scenes.)

8. A ghostly lair haunted by … miners?

Scientists discovered this octopus species in 2016 and named this one Casper. Today, companies and government want to mine the deep seabed, which harbors deposits of valuable minerals. But that mining could irreversibly harm some of Earth’s least explored ecosystems, which experts believe are home to many undiscovered species.

At a minimum, such a deep-sea gold rush could throw ecosystems out of balance, with untold consequences for ocean health.

(See how mining could scour the seafloor.)

7. Costa Rica protects mighty mangroves

This year, Costa Rica continued its conservation leadership by committing to protect coastal wetlands, such as this mangrove stand, as a way to meet its Paris Agreement climate targets. Coastal wetlands such as mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and tidal salt marshes absorb three to five times more carbon per acre than other tropical forests.

6. A tale of two penguins

On Penguin Awareness Day on Jan. 20, 2021, we shared the diverging fates of gentoo (in the first photo) and chinstrap penguins on Antarctica’s Elephant Island.

Gentoos, which can thrive on ice-free beaches, have more than doubled their numbers on the island since 1970. Chinstraps here, though, are in decline. It's not yet clear why, but researchers suggest that they may be casualties of a rapidly changing ecosystem as the climate warms.

(Related: “New Research Shows Shifting Fortunes of 2 Southern Ocean Penguin Species.”)

5. Preserving Patagonia

Earlier this year, Chile announced a more than $5 million investment in Patagonia National Park, home to electric blue lakes, ancient cave art, and snowcapped peaks. The funds will go toward modernizing park infrastructure and helping the local Chile Chico community preserve its natural and cultural heritage.

4. Polynesian protections for tuna?

Bigeye tuna such as these thrive in French Polynesian waters alongside 20 species of sharks and corals, as well as numerous fish species found nowhere else. Leaders here are pushing for protections for local fisheries, which are declining because of overfishing and other threats.

3. Boreal aerial

On March 21, the International Day of Forests, we highlighted the largest remaining intact forest in the world: Canada’s boreal, which covers more than 1 billion contiguous acres. Indigenous communities that have lived here for millennia are now working to protect this iconic ecosystem.

(Multimedia series: Meet the people of the boreal.)

2. Seagrass split-screens

Seagrass beds, such as those where this eastern fiddler ray and hawksbill turtle roam, provide critical habitat for 20% of the world’s largest fisheries and hundreds of marine species. These ecosystems also produce oxygen, store carbon, and more.

(See 7 reasons to protect seagrass.)

1. Star-studded celebration

In June, Panama announced it would triple the size of the Coiba Ridge marine protected area, off the country’s Pacific coast, to more than 26,000 square miles. These photos of sea stars, a whale shark, Panama’s rugged coastline, and migrating humpback whales show just some of the marine life and ecosystems that stand to benefit.

The front facade of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC.
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