Good News Stories You Might Have Missed in the Madness of 2016

Muynak, a former port on the Aral Sea
A view of the ships cemetery in Muynak, a former port city, during United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's visit April 4, 2010. In July reports suggested that the sea might be returning as fish production has increased. Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo/Reuters

Deepening conflict in the Middle East; reverberations from the refugee crisis in Europe; political shocks in the U.S. and Britain; India's ongoing currency crisis; Russia's attempts to exercise influence as a great power…These and a host of other stories have made 2016 feel like a particularly bruising year.

But however much a year throws at you, there's always some good to be found. Newsweek has dug out eight bits of good news that you might have missed amid the turmoil.

Medicine: An End to Animal Testing?

Longer life expectancies and an end to suffering are good things. And mice and monkeys are cute. This is what we might call the animal testing paradox—science struggles to give humans better lives without making animals' existences shorter and nastier.

But a development my colleague Anthony reported on in October could help solve that quandary. The first-ever fully 3D-printed "heart-on-a-chip" was developed by Harvard researchers this year, offering a synthetic alternative for the living tissue that is currently used in animal testing. Beyond saving animal lives, organ-on-a-chip devices can be efficiently produced and researchers claim they are more accurate at mimicking human pathophysiology.

If you had failed to see the point of 3D printing so far, think of the millions of lives—human and animal—that could be saved.

3d printing heart on chip harvard
A heart-on-a-chip, made entirely using multimaterial 3D printing in a single automated procedure. Researchers hope it could pave the way for the end of animal testing. Lori K. Sanders and Alex D. Valentine, Lewis Lab/Harvard University

Economics: Generation Z Will Save Us All

With the financial press full of headlines about feckless millennials who'd rather splash their cash than save to buy a house, it's easy to write younger generations off as lost causes. But, as I reported back in February, new research shows almost and early adults are a lot smarter and more responsible than you'd think.

In February economist Noreena Hertz revealed the results of her research about the group she calls "Generation K" after their affinity with Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games series of novels. She conducted focus groups and interviews with 16-to-18-year-olds in the U.K. and surveyed nearly 2,000 people aged between 14 and 21 in the U.K. and U.S. "They're actually a very surprisingly financially cautious generation," she said. Hertz also found that they're more likely to save as a precaution than the next couple of generations up, and 72 percent of generation K said they were worried about debt.

In our politics as well as our pockets, we're still feeling the impact of the great recession and its economic anxieties. But it seems one long-term outcome could be a generation more careful and less inclined to crash the system than their parents.

Conflict: The Toy Smuggler

Some people risk their lives to deliver aid to Syria; one man does it to deliver toys. Miral Khalagi, the "toy smuggler" profiled by NBC in September, has traveled to the war-torn nation more than two dozen times, slipping across borders with bags of toys for children hit by the conflict.

Originally from Aleppo, Khalagi grew up in Finland. "As a Syrian, I wanted of course to do my part in helping people," he told NBC. He decided on toys rather than aid after his daughter Yasmeen, then 3 years old, brought him some of her dolls to take.

There's not much in Syria this year that could be classed as "good news." But Khalagi is just one of thousands of humanitarians, from large or small organizations, working to remind the civilians caught in our lifetime's most devastating crossfire that the world remembers them.

Environment: A Sea Springs Back to Life

The Aral Sea, which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once the planet's fourth largest freshwater lake. But in the decades since the 1960s it became blasted and dry. Nikita Khrushchev began a project that saw its two main tributaries, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, diverted during the 1960s. While nearby arable land expanded, the sea shrank. The local fishing industry almost vanished.

But now, there are signs that the Aral is returning. An Al Jazeera reporter at the old port of Aralsk, near the northern part of the sea, found this July that fish production at the port has grown from 600 tonnes in 1996 to 7,200 tonnes. The nearby village of Tastubek, over 49 miles away from the sealine in 2010, is now only 12 miles from the water.

It's all thanks to the World Bank-funded Kok-Aral Dam, completed in August 2005, that is finally starting to pay dividends. The dam separated the northern and southern parts of the sea, in order to divert water back into the desolate north. A second phase of the project is planned, which should bring the water right back up to Aralsk. There's some way to go. But looking from the old fishing towns of the northern Aral, the waves are on the horizon.

Religion: A Broad Church

In a year when Islam has been stigmatized throughout the West and faith-based sectarian conflicts have re-opened in the Middle East, "religious unity" isn't a phrase that immediately springs to mind when you think about 2016. But a meeting between two branches of the Christian church did go against the grain.

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, and Patriarch Kirill, leader of Russian Orthodox Christianity, met in Cuba in February. It was the first time in nearly 1,000 years that the most senior figures in the Russian and Roman Churches had met; the two branches split in the "great schism" of 1054.

The two Churches did not agree to any formal advance in relations. But the meeting sent a message to Christians: ending human suffering—such as that faced by Christians in war-torn parts of the Middle East—should be more important than theological differences. "God makes no distinctions between those who suffer," the Pope said at the time.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) and Pope Francis
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) and Pope Francis embrace in Havana, February 12. The meeting was a historic moment for the Christian denominations. Max Rossi/Reuters

Women in Politics: Japan Breaks a Glass Ceiling

Japanese politics is still heavily male-dominated — The World Economic Forum ranks the country 101st out of 145 in terms of gender equality. But this year Japanese people smashed a glass ceiling when Tokyo, the capital, elected its first female governor in a landslide victory.

Sixty-four-year-old Yuriko Koike is a former defense minister, an Arabic speaker and an environmentalist. In her campaign she referenced female historical icons, including Joan of Arc, and pledged to tackle childcare shortages "so that both women and men can shine in Tokyo."

Koike is no progressive—she's a right-wing nationalist who is hawkish on foreign policy—but her presence at the top of politics and willingness to explicitly tackle equality issues is a step toward opening up the top of Japanese politics to women.

Energy: The Sun Shines on Chernobyl

The Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine has stood silent since 1986, when the nearby nuclear reactor exploded. It stands as a reminder of the perils of the nuclear age.

But now, as Anthony reported back in November, two Chinese companies this year agreed a plan to regenerate the land surrounding the reactor by constructing a giant solar power plant. The solar farm will be capable of producing 1 gigawatt of energy and construction is expected to begin next year.

"There will be remarkable social benefits and economic ones as we try to renovate the once damaged area with green and renewable energy," said Shu Hua, chairman of Chinese energy firm Golden Concord, the company planning to revive the exclusion zone. If all goes to plan, Chernobyl will be reborn as an icon of the era of renewable energy.

Violence Against Women: Somalia Takes New Steps on FGM

According to UNICEF, about 98 percent of Somali girls and women aged between 15 and 49 undergo some form of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the removal of external female genitalia. The Somali constitution forbids the practice, but the country's parliament, which was only established in 2012, has not passed a law on it.

But back in March, as my colleague Conor reported, Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke added his name to a petition that calls on the Somali government to adopt a full FGM ban. Ifrah Ahmed, a Somali anti-FGM campaigner, told the BBC his backing would provide a "huge boost" to the campaign.

Somalia's government is presently in limbo as a general election scheduled for next autumn has suffered repeated delays. But campaigners hope the commitment will stick, and turn into a step forward for the country's women.