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How climate change is melting, drying and flooding Earth — in pictures

Nature’s pick of the best science images is this month dedicated to climate change — and the researchers who study it.

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Arctic landscape of ice breaking off into the sea

Credit: Florian Ledoux

On thin ice. This aerial view of the sea ice in East Greenland was captured by photographer Florian Ledoux using a drone 250 metres above sea level. Scientists have estimated that 2019 could be a record year for ice loss in Greenland. The melt season began weeks earlier than usual, and ice thawed faster than normal for the spring and summer months. During a summer heatwave, inland temperatures rose 12 °C above average and about 55 billion tonnes of ice melted in just 5 days.

60 year Kenyan village chief struggles in flood water

Credit: Andrew McConnell/Panos

Burst banks. Pictured here in 2010, Idle Kasow, a chief of the Korlabe village in eastern Kenya, struggles in flood water after torrents during the rainy season caused the banks of the Tana River to burst. The ensuing floods displaced 76,000 people and left nearly 100 dead. Kenya experienced more lethal floods last year. Research published in April predicts that weather extremes in Africa will worsen in the coming decades — bringing extreme bouts of rainfall that cause floods, as well as more severe droughts.

Fisherman Jose da Cruz walks holding a sack filled with crabs he caught at mangrove forests, Brazil

Credit: Nacho Doce/Reuters

Forest fishers. Jose da Cruz makes his living by harvesting crabs and oysters in Brazil’s coastal mangrove forests, where fresh water from the Caratingui River mixes with salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. Mangroves are an important sink for carbon dioxide, but are vulnerable to rising water levels. Da Cruz says that over the past decade, the water line has receded 3 metres inland and his catch has been cut in half. Scientists predict that even if greenhouse-gas emissions were stopped completely, water levels would continue to rise, putting the mangrove ecosystem, and the livelihoods of fishers such as da Cruz, at risk.

The interior of an abaondoned multi storey building in Norilsk covered in ice

Credit: Elena Chernyshova/Panos

Unstable foundations. This eerie photograph shows an abandoned building overrun with ice in the city of Norilsk in Russia’s far north. Russia is home to several cities built on permafrost. As the tundra thaws, buildings in these cities are beginning to shift because many of them are built on pylons — rods that provide structural support — driven into the icy terrain. The sudden thawing of Arctic permafrost is of great concern to scientists, who say that the methane and carbon dioxide gas that the process releases is accelerating global warming.

Farmer Ash Whitney stands in the middle of a dried-up dam in a drought-effected paddock in New South Wales, Australia

Credit: David Gray/Reuters

Running dry. This dried-up paddock on a farm near the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, pictured in June 2018, shows the effects of the harsh drought that has gripped parts of Australia for the past few years. In August 2018, the whole of New South Wales was declared to be in drought, and the country is preparing for another dry summer — something that its citizens increasingly fear. Climate change means that droughts and extreme heat events are likely to become more common in the country, according to the government’s latest ‘State of the Climate’ report.

Fluorescing and bleached corals amongst healthy corals in New Caledonia.

Credit: Richard Vevers/The Ocean Agency

Coral sunscreen. When faced with potentially fatal bleaching events, some corals produce brightly coloured, fluorescent pigments in response to intense sunlight as a last-ditch effort to prevent overheating. The proteins act as a chemical sunscreen, absorbing and reflecting components of sunlight that could harm the coral’s symbiotic algae. Two-thirds of corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were bleached by marine heatwaves in 2016 and 2017, causing researchers to experience ecological grief.

Researchers study the ice of Skaftafell, on the southern edge of Vatnajökull, Iceland

Credit: Eric Kruszewski/NGS

Disappearing structures. A glaciologist photographs the inside of a moulin — a well-like structure — in Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier. The nation’s glaciers have courted headlines this year: in August, citizens held a funeral for the first ‘dead’ glacier, called Ok, and a report from the Iceland’s Committee on Climate Change warns that by the next century, none of the country’s glaciers will remain.

A remote camera captures a pika in Wyoming's Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Credit: Drew Rush/National Geographic/Alamy

Pika populations. The American pika (Ochotona princeps) could be one of the first mammals to be driven to extinction by climate change, scientists have warned. Pikas live in mountainous regions in western North America and are intolerant of high temperatures. As summers have become hotter and drier, some pika populations have adapted by shifting their range to cooler regions, while others have disappeared. A study in Nature Climate Change this month showed that the way a pika population responds to climate change depends more on the characteristics of the region where it is found than its genetic make-up.

Oil goes into a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada

Credit: Todd Korol/Reuters

Slick operation. Oil runs into a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands site near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Canada’s oil sands are one of the world’s largest deposits of bitumen, an extremely dense, viscous form of petroleum that must be heated underground and pumped to the surface before it can be processed into synthetic crude oil. The mining of oil sands has caused controversy, because it has a higher carbon footprint than extracting crude oil from wells and involves the destruction of forest and peatland.

AWI sea ice physicists work on the sea ice in wind and snow during an expedition to the Antarctic

Credit: Alfred Wegener Institut/Stefan Hendricks

Into the polar dark. Polarstern — Germany’s flagship research vessel — embarked on the biggest-ever scientific mission to the Arctic last week. As part of the international project, called the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC), the ship will become frozen in sea ice and will drift for 12 months, giving scientists the closest look yet at how warming is affecting the fragile ecosystems of the polar north. Already, rising temperatures are changing the region in unprecedented ways: it is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and the amount of summer sea ice is dwindling.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02793-0

This article is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 media outlets to highlight the issue of climate change.

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