“What is art … but nature concentrated?” wrote French novelist Honoré de Balzac. At Atlas Obscura, we often find wonder and beauty in the Earth and its creatures, especially when they’re seen from different perspectives. From above, from below, from up close, these striking images can be reminiscent of abstract art—but they aren’t entirely abstract. They almost always hold interesting stories about the planet, how it is changing, and the processes of climate, geology, and biology. We call these stories, written by Senior Editor/Writer Gemma Tarlach, Abstract Wonder. Here are some of our favorite mindbending images of Earth and its inhabitants from 2021.

An Australian Lake Returns to Life Amid Controversy and Hope

The irregular dots and textures seen in the image at top represent water that is vital to not only fish and birds, but also to the culture of the Barkindji, or People of the River.

Is This an Erupting Volcano or the Eye of Sauron?

The searing eye of a mythical sorcerer is nothing compared to the captivating lava show put on this year by the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland.

In a satellite image of the Greenland Ice Sheet's southwestern corner, captured on August 21, 2021, pale blue meltwater streams across ice or collects in slushy depressions. The deeper blue areas are meltwater lakes with depths up to about 30 feet.
In a satellite image of the Greenland Ice Sheet’s southwestern corner, captured on August 21, 2021, pale blue meltwater streams across ice or collects in slushy depressions. The deeper blue areas are meltwater lakes with depths up to about 30 feet. European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery

Ghostly Satellite Image Captures the Arctic ‘Losing Its Soul’

Pale and dark patches and swirls tell us about the process of summer melt in the Arctic—and how quickly it is accelerating.

See an Ordinary Jellyfish From an Extraordinary Perspective

Instead of far away, this striking image brings you up close, for a prey-eye view of a barrel jellyfish, which have been blooming in warmer oceans.

Seen from the International Space Station, twin volcanoes Sundoro and Sumbing (left to right) on the Indonesian island of Java.
Seen from the International Space Station, twin volcanoes Sundoro and Sumbing (left to right) on the Indonesian island of Java. NASA/Public Domain

Are Twin Volcanoes Double the Trouble?

The peaks of these volcanoes in Indonesia stare out into space like eyes, and also tell a tale of restless seismic activity below ground—activity that impacts life above it.

This Nighttime Drone Shot of a Futuristic City Is Actually a Sea Urchin

Scientists uses immunofluorescence to get the nervous system of an incredibly tiny sea urchin to glow in unbelievable radial patterns.

The muddy shores of Lake Uru Uru in Bolivia are awash in the colors of a bright sunset, a sign of the lake's dire straits.
The muddy shores of Lake Uru Uru in Bolivia are awash in the colors of a bright sunset, a sign of the lake’s dire straits. Gaston Brito Miserocchi/Getty Images

In the Andes, Bright Colors Tell the Dark Story of a Dying Lake

Stunning colors tell a story of mining runoff and environmental damage in Bolivia.

In Iceland, Glacial Meltwater Creates a Stunning (and Small) Landscape

What appears to be an undulating, ghostly landscape of dead trees is actually a view of a glacier’s meltwater sculpting little canyons into the Icelandic terrain.