In many respects, 2015 was an emotional year in news. The self-proclaimed Islamic State left a trail of terror on four continents, demonstrations and riots erupted in U.S. cities protesting police violence, the number of mass shootings surpassed days in the year by one count, and the world was forced to acknowledge Europe's growing migrant crisis after images of a 3-year-old Syrian boy's lifeless body on a Mediterranean beach went viral.
But despite war, violence and tragedy dominating the headlines, 2015 was filled with plenty of bright moments, too: the U.S. thawed relations with Cuba, tackled global warming and said "I do" to same-sex marriage. And then there was "The Dress."
From the tragic to the intriguing, here are the top 15 stories that dominated the news:
ISIS Goes Global [[347924741, C]]
In 2015, ISIS continued its rampage across the Middle East in a bid to expand its territory and establish a self-declared Islamic "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq. The group preaches that the end of the world is near and claims the world is made up of unbelievers who seek to destroy Islam, justifying attacks against other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State expanded its footprint in 2015, seizing the Iraqi city of Ramadi — currently being retaken by Iraqi security forces — and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site where the militant group destroyed monumental ruins and antiquities.
It has terrorized nations across the globe with coordinated attacks in Paris, Tunisia and Lebanon and the beheading of a captured citizen of Japan. The group also continued to target religious minorities in the region, beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians kidnapped in Libya and killing and enslaving thousands of Yazidis.
ISIS' ability to galvanize its sympathizers to take action by urging extremists to carry out "lone wolf" attacks became evident in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by a husband and wife. Like the gunmen in the Sydney cafe siege and the Texas Draw Muhammad contest, the couple did not appear to have any direct contact with the militant group but had nonetheless been radicalized by its jihadist propaganda, according to FBI director James Comey.
SCOTUS Says 'I Do' to Same-Sex Marriage
In a landmark opinion, a divided Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can marry nationwide, declaring that refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples violates the Constitution.
The ruling "affirms what millions across this country already know to be true in their hearts: our love is equal," lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell, who challenged Ohio's ban on same-sex marriage, told reporters outside the court house. "The four words etched onto the front of the Supreme Court — 'equal justice under law' — apply to us, too."
But one Kentucky clerk defied the nation's highest court and became a household name. Rowan County clerk Kim Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage, citing her religious beliefs and "God's authority." Two gay couples and two straight couples sued Davis, arguing that she must fulfill her duties as an elected official despite her personal religious faith. A federal judge ordered her to issue the licenses, and an appeals court upheld that decision. Davis refused and spent five days in jail for contempt of court.
Europe's Migrant Crisis [[324964541, C]]
A surge of refugees and migrants made their way across the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, sparking a crisis as countries struggle to cope with the influx, and creating division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than one million migrants and refugees have entered Europe in 2015 by land and sea. Of those, nearly 800,000 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans concentrated in refugee camps in Turkey, ventured across the Aegean Sea to reach Greek shores, the IOM reported.
Driven out by the Syrian war and other protracted conflicts, the desperate and deadly struggle to reach Europe gained international attention when images of a toddler's lifeless body found lying face-down on a Mediterranean beach, ricocheted across social media.
Though 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was only one of approximately 684 refugees who died in the Aegean this year, the Syrian boy's death helped galvanized public opinion and pressure governments to take action.
#VideoTapesMatter [[301471201, C]]
Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sam Dubose, Eric Harris and Nicholas Robertson joined a growing number of people killed by police this year. And though there isn't official government data for determining how many people have been fatally shot by police each year, according to a Washington Post tally, 944 people have been killed — 34 of them were black and unarmed.
But most of them did not become a household name. They did not garner a trending hashtag.
What separates them from the names listed above? None had viral videos of the shootings.
Due in part to the ubiquity of cellphone, surveillance, dashboard and body cameras, police encounters are captured on video more then ever before. And seemingly, as in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was fatally shot in 2014, charges against the officers involved aren't brought forth without the videos.
From Ferguson to Los Angeles, law enforcement killings of unarmed black men under questionable circumstances have sparked outrage, civil unrest and a heated national debate about policing in the United States. And thanks to the footage, a tectonic shift in public awareness.
Charleston Church Shooting
The slaying of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white gunman reignited an old national debate about the rebel flag and other icons of the Confederacy, which some see as symbols of their Southern heritage while others as a painful reminders of America's darkest chapter.
The 21-year-old gunman, Dylan Roof, was an avowed white supremacist who, according to authorities, had a website featuring a 2,444-word white supremacist screed and posted photos of himself holding a Confederate flag on Facebook.
The shooting prompted calls for the state to remove the Civil War icon that has flown at the capital grounds for more than five decades. After mounting public pressure, on July 10, the Confederate battle flag was lowered for the last time.
Shortly after, companies like Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon and Ebay announced they would also remove Confederate flag merchandise from their stores and sites.
The Iran Nuclear Deal
After a decade of diplomatic efforts that frequently appeared on the verge of collapse, the United States and its international partners, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China — collectively knows at the P5+1 — reached a historic accord with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear ability in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions.
The goal of the agreement is to limit the country's nuclear activities to peaceful purposes, and to block Iran’s ability to construct a nuclear bomb.
Before July's deal can be formally implemented, Iran must first meet all of the benchmarks set forth by the accord's negotiators. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been tasked to verify that required restrictions has been put in place for sanction to be lifted.
In December, the Obama administration said it expects to start lifting sanctions on Iran as early as January after the United Nations' nuclear watchdog found no credible evidence that Tehran has recently engaged in atomic-weapons activity.
But the agency reported that the country had pursued a program in secret until 2009, longer than previously believed, fueling critics in Washington, Israel and neighboring Gulf nations who say the deal will merely delay the country’s path to nuclear weapons.
'Deflategate' Blows Up
Americans may have never cared as much about air pressure as when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was accused of under-inflating footballs during the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Brady led a 45-7 blowout of the Colts and took the Patriots to a fourth NFL title, but a league investigation later found that 11 of 12 of the Patriots' game balls weren't filled up to the minimum, 12.5 pounds per square inch, in the game. The case against Brady involved supposed instructions to equipment managers, including orders to destroy a cell phone, and an unwillingness to cooperate with an NFL probe.
It convinced Commissioner Roger Goodell, who handed out a four-game suspension for violating the integrity of the game. But many New England fans were unconvinced Brady had done anything wrong, with one Massachusetts woman's May obituary proclaiming "Brady is Innocent!!"
For a time, the scandal pierced the image of a player with a seemingly perfect life. But Brady had the last laugh, for at least this year – a federal judge overturned the league's suspension and the appeal won't be heard in court until after the 2016 Super Bowl, where Brady could win his fifth ring.
Nepal Rocked by Earthquake [[301303011, C]]
Deadly earthquakes twice rocked the top of the world in April, killing more than 8,000 people in Nepal, India and China, in the worst natural disaster of the year.
Nepal saw the worst damage and nearly all of the casualties when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit on April 25 near its capital, Kathmandu. The shaking triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that took the lives of 19 people at base camp.
The recovery effort turned tragic after less than three weeks, when a 7.3-magnitude rocked the area on May 12, killing dozens more. That day, a U.S. Marine helicopter carrying six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers on a relief mission went missing, and was later confirmed crashed.
The tremors were a reminder of the hulking power that made the Himalayas the tallest mountains in the world. It was so powerful that Everest moved over an inch southwest, according to Chinese mapping.
#TheDress Does Impress
Answering "Blue and black or white and gold?" wrong could have ignited a friendship-ending debate when the effects of The Dress were in full effect this February. The striped dress in a low-resolution photo divided opinion like the Red Sea and showed just how powerfully the Internet had come to dominate our lives.
The debate scorched around the world once BuzzFeed wrote about it, with celebrities and strangers at the bar alike brashly declaring which side they were on. The BuzzFeed post was viewed more than 38 million times by the end of the year, and that doesn't take into account all the other places that highlighted the color-shifting dress, from this website to "The Tonight Show."
#TheDress went so viral it jumped out of the computer screen and into real life. Roman Originals, which made the dress and confirmed that it was blue and black, experienced a huge spike in sales of the dress this year. It did make one single white and gold version for a Comic Relief charity auction.
The Donald Trump Show [[338107532, C]]
After a history of flirting with a presidential bid, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump launched his race to the White House by promising to "build a Great Wall" along the U.S. border with Mexico to keep out the "rapists and drug dealers."
Since then, Trump also made insulting remarks about Fox News' Megan Kelly and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. He mocked Vietnam veteran John McCain's war record and taunted a reporter with a disability. He retweeted a joke about Iowans, following it up by insinuated Iowans had brain issues. He called for "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," in the last week, has used crude language to describe Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary loss to Barack Obama.
For any other candidate, in any other time, any one of these would have spelled political suicide. Yet, after each one of Trump's seeming gaffes, he continues to lead the GOP field in national polls, leaving many wondering whether the “laws of political gravity” will ever “catch up” to him.
Cuba, U.S. on Speaking Terms
Fifty-four years of hostilities between the United States and Cuba officially ended this year, at least symbolically, when the Stars and Stripes was raised over the newly opened U.S. embassy in Havana.
There have been years of embargo and insults since diplomatic relations were broken off in early 1961, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nearest America ever came to nuclear war.
In 2000, the countries bickered over the fate of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy found floating on an inner tube and taken to live with relatives in Miami, only for his father to claim, and successfully argue, that little Elian belonged back in the country his late mother had dragged him out of.
But by 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cuba to reopen the embassy, taking note of conflict and differences but "pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities."
Pope Visits With New Message [[197828921, C]]
The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. has spent much of the 21st century embroiled in scandal, but it was a heartening year thanks in large part to the visit of Pope Francis, the third time a pope has visited the country.
A three-city tour over six days in September boosted Francis' already winning image, saying all the right things about the clergy sex abuse scandal and giving Catholics an affable, relatable champion seeking to retune the church's message in a changing society.
From the moment he landed in Washington, Pope Francis' personality won over Americans' hearts. He followed President Obama out of the airfield in a humble little Italian car, took selfies with smiling children and addressed Congress – a first for a pope – about the need to embrace the climate and immigrants.
His parting message to a flock of hundreds of thousands in Philadelphia: raise a good family, whatever beliefs you subscribe to, and the Catholic Church appreciates you.
Animals Break the Internet
The day that gave us #TheDress also unleashed another insanely viral moment onto the Internet: two spunky llamas' escape from a Phoenix assisted living facility.
The police pursuit of an oddly elusive black and white llama down city streets captured more attention than almost any car chase has lately, with newscasts showing the helicopter feed live. The "llama drama" left viewers happy long after the fugitives were lassoed.
That brief fascination was nothing like the uproar over the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. One of the most well-known lions in Hwange National Park, Cecil was wounded on July 1 and later killed by an American dentist and big-game hunter.
The furor burned so hot that the dentist, Walter Palmer, had to close his business for a time. While the shooting was legal, airlines and the U.S. government moved to limit what game trophies can be brought back to America.
Landmark Climate Change Accord [[287977901, C]]
With Christmas Eve seeing 70-degree temperatures up and down the East Coast, 2015 is virtually assured to be the hottest year on record, following a record-topping period from January-November. Warmer ocean temperatures are the main driver of heating trend, according to scientists.
The rising thermometer is just one potential problem that researchers have pinned on climate change –extreme weather like the massive flooding South Carolina and extreme drought in the Western U.S. may be exacerbated by climate change, which made the landmark climate change talks in Paris this December that much more urgent.
The historic deal that nearly 200 nations agreed to in Paris this December would limit greenhouse gas emissions so average global temperatures don't rise more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The accord was greeted with hugs and cheers from world leaders.
But the agreement has holes, according to critics. There are no sanctions to punish countries that don't abide by the rules, and even President Obama, a vocal supporter, said "no agreement is perfect, including this one." Days later, he appeared on NBC's "Running Wild with Bear Grylls" to show how much climate change has changed the landscape in Alaska.
The Curious Case of Rachel Dolezal
In a year where the Black Lives Movement changed the way presidential candidates talked about race and the National Book Award for Nonfiction went to a memoir about the burden of being black in America, the weirdest news story about race focused not on a black person but a white woman claiming to be black.
Rachel Dolezal was the head of an NAACP chapter in the Pacific Northwest when, in June, her parents told an NBC affiliate she was white despite representing herself as black for years.
Her hair, her skin color, even her family came under scrutiny as the nation wondered what made her want to misrepresent her race. She admitted as much on "Today" a month later, and said in November she has white parents, but also touched off a deeper debate about race in America. What advantage could she have gained when so many work so hard so that black people can receive the same privileges white people do?
While most of the reaction toward Dolezal was negative, some didn't see the harm, like the singer Rihanna. She called Dolezal "a bit of a hero" in an October interview: "Black is a great thing, and I think she legit changed people's perspective a bit and woke people up."
Photo Credit: AP