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These beautiful (and terrifying) photos show what melting glaciers leave behind

At first glance, it’s hard to tell if photographer Tom Hegen’s latest series features microscopic shots of some rare mineral, a cool finish for an exotic wood table, or the surface of an alien planet. In reality, it’s none of the above. These abstract images actually show glacier pools in Iceland, which Hegen captured by helicopter. Like Hegen’s other work, they visualize climate change on Earth.

[Photo: Tom Hegen]

As Hegen explains, these glacier pools are the result of glaciers retreating. Chunks of ice break off from the glacier as it moves, and these get stuck in the holes and eroded valleys that the glacier leaves behind. “The lake colors indicate amounts of sediment or depth: The Deeper or clearer the water, the bluer the lake,” Hegen says over email. When the shattered ice melts, a kettle pond forms. These ponds are abundant around areas in which glaciers are melting and retreating today.

Hegen has a long history of capturing the effects of the planetary climate crisis from the air , as well as the brutal effects of the Anthropocene (one name for the current geological era that is defined by the effect of human engineering on the Earth).

In a way, his latest images also depict the emergence of the Anthropocene. Not the pool themselves, which are formed naturally, but the increasing frequency with which they’re appearing and disappearing thanks to the steadily increasing planetary temperature. Iceland’s melting glaciers and retreating snows are also threatening the country and its culture. So while these images are beautiful, they’re also a reminder of the hell of climate crisis.

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