The best science images of 2022

An almighty eruption, the cosmos remastered, swirling cells and more.

A plume of ash erupting from the Hunga Tonga-Hu​nga Ha'apai volcano, as captured by the GOES-West satellite.

Images selected by Nature’s visuals team, text by Emma Stoye and Nisha Gaind

Unprecedented views of the cosmos captured imaginations in 2022, as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope began beaming back images. On Earth, striking pictures came from stressed ecosystems and from the cellular world. From black holes to volcanic eruptions, here are the images that grabbed the attention of Nature’s editors.

Sprawling Coral Reef Resembling Roses Discovered Off Tahiti, French Polynesia.

Credit: Alexis Rosenfeld/UNESCO/Fondation 1 Ocean

Credit: Alexis Rosenfeld/UNESCO/Fondation 1 Ocean

Floral coral. Researchers discovered a 3-kilometre coral reef at a depth of 30 metres off the coast of Tahiti, French Polynesia, during a global effort to map the sea bed. The reef is one of the largest to be discovered at this depth and contains giant, rose-shaped corals that are in pristine condition, according to the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO, which is leading the project.

Embryonic hand of a Madagascar giant day gecko (Phelsuma grandis), 1st place winner of Small World 2022.

Credit: Grigorii Timin & Dr. Michel Milinkovitch/Nikon Small World 2022

Credit: Grigorii Timin & Dr. Michel Milinkovitch/Nikon Small World 2022

High five. Evolutionary biologist Grigorii Timin created this detailed image of a gecko embryo’s foot using microscopy and artistic techniques. The process involved staining tiny specimens with dyes and combining hundreds of microscopy images.

Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope

Credit: EHT Collaboration

Credit: EHT Collaboration

Galactic abyss. This is Sagittarius A* — the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. It’s the second direct image of a black hole. Like the first such image — of the black hole at the centre of galaxy M87, released in 2019 — astronomers created the picture using radio-wave observations taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, a global network of radio observatories.

Combined images of the iconic Pillars of Creation from two cameras aboard the James Webb Space Telescope.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, J. DePasquale (STScI), A. Pagan (STScI), A. M. Koekemoer (STScI)

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, J. DePasquale (STScI), A. Pagan (STScI), A. M. Koekemoer (STScI)

Dust tendrils. Towering fingers of interstellar dust reach into the cosmos in this James Webb Space Telescope view of the Pillars of Creation, a star-forming region in the Eagle Nebula. The reddish stars at the end of several pillars have had their colours altered by the dust that enshrouds them. Bluish stars are those that have blown off most of their dust. The scene lies 2,000 parsecs (6,500 light years) from Earth.

An artificially colored scanning electron microscopic image showing the knobby starfish’s periodic microlattice with overgrown calcite crystals.

Credit: Ling Li

Credit: Ling Li

Skeleton structure. This scanning electron micrograph shows an ultra-close-up view of parts of a starfish skeleton known as ossicles. The highly ordered lattice structure makes the skeletons light but strong and damage-resistant.

Electrifying reproductive dance of a giant sea star in surrounding water filled with sperm and eggs from spawning sea stars.

Credit: Tony Wu/Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2022

Credit: Tony Wu/Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2022

Shooting star. Behold the mesmerizing reproductive dance of a giant sea star. As it spawns, the creature rises up onto its limbs and sways to sweep sperm and eggs into the current. Photographer Tony Wu captured the scene, which was honoured at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London.

The fruiting body of a parasitic fungus erupts from the body of a fly in the Tambopata National Reserve, Peru.

Credit: Roberto García-Roa (CC BY 4.0)

Credit: Roberto García-Roa (CC BY 4.0)

Zombie fly. A parasitic fungus erupts from the body of a fly in the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru. Evolutionary biologist Roberto García Roa captured the shot, which won this year’s BMC Ecology and Evolution image competition. The spores of the ‘zombie’ fungus infiltrate the fly’s exoskeleton and brain and compel it to migrate to a location that is more favourable for the fungus’s growth.

A screen in the JET Main Control Room displays a helium plasma from the helium C43 campaign.

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty

Limitless energy. In February, physicists at the Joint European Torus (JET) near Oxford, UK, generated the highest sustained energy pulse ever created by fusing together atoms. Scientists hope that JET, a doughnut-shaped reactor, will help them to harness nuclear fusion, the process that powers the Sun and could provide limitless clean energy.

Sheet of cells, similar to the skin ones swells to take the shape of small domes.

Credit: Caterina Tomba & Aurélien Roux

Credit: Caterina Tomba & Aurélien Roux

Swell cells. As this flat sheet of cells is bent into a curve, the cells swell up and become dome-shaped. Molecular biologists say that understanding how cells respond to bending could help in the development of 3D tissue models known as organoids.

A plume of ash errupting from the Hunga Tonga-Hu​nga Ha'apai volcano, as captured by the GOES-West satellite.

Credit: GOES-West NOAA/RAMMB/CIRA

Credit: GOES-West NOAA/RAMMB/CIRA

Mighty blast. A gigantic eruption of Tonga’s Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai volcano was heard by seismometers worldwide in January. The extraordinary power of the blast, captured by sophisticated Earth-observing satellites, created the highest volcanic plume ever recorded and is challenging ideas about the physics of eruptions.

On either side of a highway, gullies formed by rainwater erosion span out like a tree in Tibet, an autonomous region in southwest China.

Credit: Li Ping/TNC Photo Contest 2022

Credit: Li Ping/TNC Photo Contest 2022

Branching out. Gullies formed by rainwater erosion create a tree-like pattern on either side of this road in Tibet. To capture this stunning view, photographer Li Ping slept alone in a roadside car park overnight before using a drone in the early hours. The shot won the grand prize at this year’s Nature Conservancy photography competition.

Human nasal cells cultured in a petri dish.

Credit: Katie-Marie Case

Credit: Katie-Marie Case

Nasal swirl. These human nasal cells are covered in cilia — tiny hairs that trap and clear foreign bodies from the nose. While studying why COVID-19 affects certain age groups more than others, PhD student Katie-Marie Case noticed that these galaxy-like nasal cell spirals were present only in older patients.

A personal view of the news

In compiling this year’s collection of striking science images, Nature’s media and news editors identified a photograph that said something special to them. Here is their take on the past 12 months.

A fisherman paddles his boat during a sandstorm in Iraq's southern city of Basra.
Five whale sharks underwater at night in the Maldives, lit from above by the boat
A girl tends to her cattle in a raised hut in the flooded coastal area of Khulna, Bangladesh.
An elephant keeper rests on the ground next to a 1 month-old calf in the quarantine area at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Kenya.
A man holds a mobile phone while behind him smoke rises after Russian attacks hit a fuel storage facility in the Ukrainian city of Kalynivka.

Blade Runner. Agnese Abrusci (Media editor). This eerie shot of a fisherman paddling his boat during a sandstorm in Iraq’s southern city of Basra reminded me of a scene from Villeneuve’s 2017 film Blade Runner 2049, but it has nothing to do with fiction. It is another grim example of the effects of extreme climate change, although the shot also captures the hope that while we navigate through storms this year, we can clearly see how to set a better course for our planet. Credit: Hussein Faleh/AFP/Getty

Gentle giants. Jessica Hallett (Associate media editor). Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are one of my favourite underwater species, and to see them photographed in such spectacular fashion bought me real joy this year. Photographer Rafael Fernandez Caballero captured this extraordinary shot while diving at night in the Maldives — I am drawn to the image’s darkness. The gentle giants are illuminated only by the boat lights above. Credit: Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2022

Rising tide. Amelia Hennighausen (US media editor). After researching images for a story on Bangladesh’s water crisis, I could not forget the plight of the country’s coastal cities. Climate change has brought on rising tides that flood the area with saltwater, destroying crops and leaving the landscape devoid of vegetation. Khulna, shown here, is just north of the world's largest mangrove forest, and home to Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), a threatened species. For now, the area’s inhabitants have adapted to cope with the rising waters: this girl feeds her cattle in a raised hut. But I wonder how long it will be before they are no longer able to stay there. Credit: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/ Getty

Orphan elephant. Michael Szebor (Locum media editor). This year, East Africa experienced its worst drought in 40 years. Its impact was felt not just by people, but also by the wildlife so deeply connected to them. Despite being perfectly divided by the wall that separates this orphaned elephant calf from her human keeper, this image for me highlights the togetherness of the pair as the animals share a tender touch. Credit: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty

Hypnotic stare. Tom Houghton (Locum managing media editor). This photo was taken during the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, and I have found myself drawn back to it repeatedly this year. The shot was taken in March, after the Russian military struck a fuel storage facility in the city of Kalynivka. The two-point perspective of the walls frame the man in the centre of the composition, drawing your attention to his face. His unwavering eye contact makes it hard to turn away, in a way that I feel illustrates the whole terrible conflict. Credit: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty

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