Our Top Ten Stories of 2015

From treasures buried in glaciers to the racial history of a vanished city in Oregon, here are the most-read stories on Smithsonian.com this year

Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

It's been a banner year for us at Smithsonian.com, and here are the stories our readers loved the most:

1. Lake Michigan Is So Clear Right Now Its Shipwrecks Are Visible From the Air

In April, a routine U.S. Coast Guard aircrew patrol crew captured chilling shots of shipwrecks abandoned at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Marissa Fessenden explains why the melting of the lake’s winter ice caused clear enough conditions for these ghostly images to be visible.

2. The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2015

Smithsonian.com’s fourth annual list of best small towns in America spotlights Estes Park, a Rocky Mountain favorite overflowing with elk, which also features the hotel that inspired Stephen King’s, The Shining.  Other towns that made the cut include the restful Calistoga, California, home to the state’s oldest continuously operating spa, and Saint Simons Island, the largest of Georgia’s four barrier islands, fittingly called the “Golden Isles.” Stay tuned for our 2016 list coming this spring.

3. What Will Really Happen When San Andreas Unleashes the Big One?

As a rule of thumb, movie science should not be mistaken for real science. Case in point? The utter devastation that Dwayne Johnson’s character witnesses in the disaster flick, San Andreas. Sarah Zielinski’s piece breaks down what to expect when the famous fault ruptures and the “big one” actually hits.

4. Why Footbinding Persisted in China for a Millennium

While filming a piece on female foot-binding, award-winning historian Amanda Foreman held what she thought were doll shoes in her hands. She was then informed that the shoes were actually worn by a human. Foreman’s shock inspired this history on why such a painful tradition remained relevant for so many years in China.

5. An Iceberg Flipped Over, and Its Underside is Breathtaking

Filmmaker Alex Cornell was on vacation in Antarctica when he encountered a flipped-over iceberg near the Cierva Cove peninsula. Cornell described the experience akin to seeing “a double rainbow over a whale breaching…” The iceberg’s surface was so reflective that upon viewing it, Cornell found himself, quite literally, blinded by the light.

6. How Oregon's Second Largest City Vanished in a Day

Vanport, a temporary housing project created during World War II, was never intended to serve as a permanent housing solution. Yet Portland’s discriminatory housing policies forced many black residents to remain there following the war, as they had nowhere else to go. Natasha Geiling explores the history and context of the short-lived city, and why, even after it was destroyed, it continues to shape Portland’s racial history today.

7. To Stop Mosquito Bites, Silence Your Skin's Bacteria

A brave, new mosquito-bite-free world might be on our horizon, Karen Emslie writes. Her piece explains how scientists at Texas A&M University are exploring ways that bacteria on skin communicates, in order to trick these blood-sucking pests to not to bite humans.

8. A Scientist Accidentally Developed Sunglasses That Could Correct Color Blindness

Sometimes, it takes a second pair of eyes to see things clearly. At least that’s what Don McPherson, a materials scientist in Berkeley, California, found when his friend tried on a pair of his glasses that he designed to protect doctors during laser surgery. The friend who borrowed them happened to be colorblind, and when he put them on, he found that he was seeing an orange hue for the first time in his life. Now, McPherson is focused on developing everyday sunglasses for people with color vision deficiencies.

9. As Glaciers Retreat, They Give Up the Bodies and Artifacts They Swallowed

As archeologist Lars Pilö put it, ice serves as a time machine. With glaciers continuing to thaw, they are becoming a valuable resource for researchers and historians alike. Marissa Fessenden writes about what these melting tombs have already unearthed, including Roman coins and even ancient forests.

10. Fish Live Under Antarctica's Ice Shelf, Where It Seems They Shouldn't Survive

Researchers drilling through a glacier more than 500 miles from the edge of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf weren’t expecting to find much under 2,428 feet of ice, but then they saw a shadow appear on the camera attached to the underwater vehicle they sent to investigate. The next thing they knew, a bluish-brownish-pinkish creature, the size of a butter knife, came into view. The discovery is a reminder that life can be found even in the most remote of corridors.

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