Trash-eating elephants, a lava landscaper, and 8 more of this year’s best NatGeo photos

See the world through the eyes of National Geographic's imaginative photographers.
A SpaceX rocket flies above a Florida swamp in June.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, launched from Cape Canaveral in the early hours of June 19, streaks above a stand of bald cypress trees. Photo by Mac Stone

Humans continue to alter Earth in ways both mundane and extreme, as diverse as rocket ships punching through the sky to scooping up rocks from a volcano’s mouth. This crop of images, pulled from National Geographic’s Pictures of the Year 2022, shows that influence as: new scientific developments, like ribbon-y curls of ultra-thin ceramic; natural appreciation, including hikers who march like ants atop the Bears Ears monument in southeast Utah; and altered animal behavior, such as the gathering of wild elephants and domesticated cattle munching on a trash heap in Sri Lanka.

Throughout 2022, 132 photographers took 2.2 million images for the magazine from 60 countries, according to National Geographic. Check out 10 of the very best in the gallery below.

To create this image of Bears Ears, Stephen Wilkes took 2,092 photos over 36 hours, combining 44 of them to show a sunrise, a full moon, and a rare alignment of four planets. “Beyond the sense of awe and beauty,” he says, “there’s a palpable sense of history with every step you take.” This spectacular landscape in southeastern Utah exemplifies the risk to some of the country’s unique, irreplaceable places. One president preserved it at the urging of Native Americans who hold it sacred; another tried to open it to drilling and mining. The national monument is rich in archaeological sites, including the Citadel, an ancient cliff dwelling now popular with hikers. Photo by Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic
A small refinery on the roof of a laboratory at ETH Zurich pulls carbon dioxide and water directly from the air and feeds them into a reactor that concentrates solar radiation. This generates extreme heat, splitting the molecules and creating a mixture that ultimately can be processed into kerosene or methanol. Researchers hope this system will eventually produce market-ready, carbon-neutral jet fuel. One Swiss airline has already announced plans to use the fuel. Photo by Davide Monteleone/National Geographic
Istanbul-based photographer Rena Effendi traveled to Armenia and Azerbaijan in search of Satyrus effendi, a rare and endemic butterfly named after her father, the late Soviet Azerbaijani entomologist Rustam Effendi. While Effendi hasn’t yet spotted the butterfly in the wild, she did photograph a preserved one in the specimen packed cabin of her father’s protégé Parkev Kazarian, a taxidermist in the mountainous town of Gyumri, Armenia. “I loved that it was still beautiful, even dead,” she says. Photo by Rena Effendi/National Geographic
It’s tempting to think of ceramics as strong yet brittle, like a coffee cup shattered on a kitchen floor. But to scientists at glass and ceramics manufacturer Corning, they’re flexible and durable. The ribbon ceramics they’ve devised can be spooled into strips thinner than a sheet of paper. The loops of heat-tolerant alumina seen here could make automotive sensors and other devices used in harsh environments quicker and cheaper to produce. They could also enable new kinds of batteries. The photographer captured the innovation as part of a 10-year project focused on the influence of US-based manufacturers. Photo by Christopher Payne/National Geographic
University of Virginia neuroscientists record the brain activity of nine-month-old Ian Boardman, while brushing his skin to activate nerve fiber responses. Photo by Lynn Johnson/National Geographic
Wild Asian elephants mingle with cattle at a garbage dump near Minneriya, in central Sri Lanka. The island nation is home to some 6,000 pachyderms living in close contact with people. Having lost their lowland forest home, elephants now seek out human-affected habitats, including croplands, and are master generalists, capable of eating at least a hundred different plants. That doesn’t mean that Sri Lankan elephants are thriving—they instead may be coping. Researchers are tracking their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, that could be detrimental to the elephants’ health. Photo by Brent Stirton/National Geographic
With winged arms in a protective spread, this relief of the Egyptian goddess Isis has stood guard for millennia on the stone sarcophagus of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. Isis has witnessed a great deal: Soon after Tut’s burial in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the 14th century B.C., grave robbers ransacked parts of the tomb. Then, in 1922, a team led by British archaeologist Howard Carter rediscovered the burial site and fully excavated it. Nearly all of Tutankhamun’s belongings now reside in the lavish Grand Egyptian Museum, which opens soon outside Cairo. The sarcophagus, though, remains within the necropolis, along with the boy king’s mummy. Photo by Paolo Verzone/National Geographic

[Related: 9 stunning pictures of the microscopic realm]

For a peso (less than two cents), internet vending machines bring the boundless digital world to Filipinos for a few minutes in a Manila neighborhood. Filipinos spend an average of four hours a day on social media, making them some of the world’s most active users. But false content flourishes on the country’s online platforms, leading media analysts to dub the Philippines patient zero in what has turned into a global disinformation pandemic. Dis- and misinformation became particularly acute in the run-up to this year’s presidential election, which saw Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., the son of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, elected leader of the nation’s more than 110 million people. “Lies travel faster than the truth,” says Celine Samson of Vera Files, one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners. Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales/National Geographic

Wearing a protective suit, Armando Salazar steps carefully across sizzling rock, carrying a chunk of glowing lava on a pitchfork. It’s just another day on the job for Salazar, an emergency specialist in the Spanish military, as he collects samples during a 2021 eruption at La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge. Scientists and others also ventured across fresh flows to monitor gases, record earthquakes, and more, hoping to better understand the event, which lasted for almost 86 days. Their findings can help them determine Cumbre Vieja’s potential for future blasts. Photo by Arturo Rodriguez

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