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TIME’s Best Photojournalism of 2014

From the gruesome civil war in Central African Republic to the geopolitical conflict in Ukraine, the devastation in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis in Syria, TIME's photographers produced some of the most compelling images of the past 12 months

In 2014, TIME’s commitment to photojournalism remained as strong as ever, as the magazine assigned photographers to stories all across the U.S. and in Afghanistan, Brazil, Burma, Central African Republic, Finland, Gaza, Hong Kong, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, the Phillipines, Syria and Ukraine among many other countries.

From the gruesome civil war in Central African Republic to the geopolitical conflict in Ukraine, the devastation in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis in Syria, TIME’s photographers were on the front lines of a particularly violent year, bringing back some of the most compelling images produced over the past 12 months.

There were lighter moments, though, when TIME sent Magnum photographer Alex Majoli on the set of Mad Men, or when Christopher Morris documented this year’s U.S. mid-term elections. And there were moments of hope, as well, when Elinor Carucci of Institute followed the difficult and emotional first days of a premature infant.

2014 also marked James Nachtwey’s 30th anniversary as a contract photographer for TIME. This year, the celebrated photographer recorded the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan and of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. He also witnessed the incredible resilience of protesters in Hong Kong, and the unwavering strength of injured U.S. soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland — proving once more that he remains one of today’s best photojournalists.

No one knows what 2015 will bring — many of this year’s conflicts remain unresolved — but there’s no doubt that these talented photographers and many others like them, will be reporting back.

Read next: TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2014

TIME space

Mars Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to Genesis of Ancient Lake

Geological observations helped scientists come up with a scenario for the creation of a lake bigger than Salt Lake

Geological observations from NASA’s Curiosity rover have helped scientists come up with a scenario for the creation of a lake that’s bigger than Salt Lake and a mountain that’s higher than Mount Rainier on ancient Mars.

The scenario suggests that water could have filled much of 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) Gale Crater 3.5 billion years ago or so, and that the 3.5-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain in the middle of the crater could have been formed by repeated cycles of sediment buildup and erosion.

The findings provide further support for the view that ancient Mars could have sustained life as we know it on Earth…
TIME space

See 25 Incredible Images of Earth From Space

There’s something to be said for being on the ground when news plays out, but sometimes it’s the overhead view that provides the most unique perspective. Throughout 2014, DigitalGlobe’s satellites have captured scenes that gave us important glimpses into what was happening around us, from the unrest in Ukraine to fires in California. A leading provider of commercial satellite imagery, DigitalGlobe is holding its fourth annual Top Image contest and asking followers on Facebook to pick the year’s top picture. Vote here.

TIME space

Here Are 5 Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Pluto

Denis Scott—Corbis

Principal New Horizons scientist answers all your burning queries

Correction appended Dec. 9, 2014

On Saturday, the New Horizons space probe was roused from hibernation for the last time before its July close encounter with Pluto. TIME caught up with mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, and asked him to come up with five cool things we’ll learn about Pluto during the encounter, and five cool things you should know about the space probe itself.

Given that Stern has been thinking about Pluto for decades, and working on New Horizons for nearly 15 years, it should come as no surprise that he rattled off his top 10 without breaking a sweat.

TOP FIVE THINGS WE’LL LEARN ABOUT PLUTO

Does Pluto have craters?

You’d think so, since Pluto, once believed to be all alone at the edge of the Solar System, is just part of the Kuiper Belt, a swarm of billions, or even trillions, of icy bodies that lie out beyond Neptune. The smaller ones have presumably been peppering Pluto for billions of years. But Pluto’s surface might consist of a thick layer of nitrogen ice, which would be soft, mushy and unlikely to form long-lasting craters. There could even be liquid nitrogen on the surface, which could smooth out any impact craters.

Does Pluto have an ocean?

It just might, down below the surface. “The deeper you go, the higher the pressure,” Stern said. That makes the interior warmer than the surface, which means it could get warm enough for ice to melt into water. New Horizons could detect the ocean indirectly, by measuring Pluto’s shape to high accuracy and by looking for cracks that might signal a solid crust flexing atop an underground ocean.

How many moons does Pluto have?

“We know it’s got five, based on observations from Earth,” Stern said. “But how many more are there? Another five? Fifteen? Fifty? All of these are possible. However many there are, they might have been captured when they ventured too close to the planet, or they might have been created in a huge impact that created Pluto’s large moon, Charon, or it might be a combination. New Horizons could answer that question too.

Does Pluto have rings?

Could be. You can’t tell from Earth, but Pluto’s moons Nix and Hydra have weak enough gravity that impacts from smaller objects could kick up dust that would fly off into space and potentially form rings about Pluto itself.

Does Pluto have geysers, volcanoes or other geological activity?

You’d think a world that averages 3.67 billion miles away from the sun would be deep-frozen, but if there’s an underground ocean, it could trigger geysers like those on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, volcanoes like those on Jupiter’s moon Io, or some sort of plate tectonics, as on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

PLUS: ONE THING WE DEFINITELY WON’T LEARN

Is Pluto a planet?

Depends on who you ask, and that’s not likely to change after the encounter. If you ask Stern, it definitely is. He’s more than fine with your calling it a dwarf planet. In fact, he points out, “I invented the term.” What he doesn’t get is why the International Astronomical Union came out with a new definition of “planet” back in 2006 (and just a few months after New Horizons launched) that excluded dwarf planets. “Does that mean a dwarf evergreen should be considered an evergreen?” asks Stern, pointedly? In a recent debate at Harvard, the best explanation the IAU’s representative could come up with for keeping dwarf planets out of the ranks of planets was basically that otherwise there would be too many planets to remember. Which might be true, but it’s not all that persuasive.

FIVE COOL THINGS ABOUT THE NEW HORIZONS SPACECRAFT

It’s smaller and much simpler than the Voyager probes that visited Jupiter, Saturn and the other outer worlds (except Pluto!) in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s like a modern tablet compared with an old mainframe computer,” says Stern

It was approved by NASA after five earlier Pluto missions failed to make the cut.

“It was mostly due to cost overruns,” says Stern. “They kept adding extra capabilities like ornaments on a Christmas tree.”

It’s the fastest spacecraft ever to leave Earth.

New Horizons took off for Pluto at a record 36,000 m.p.h.

During closest approach, about 8,000 miles from Pluto’s surface, New Horizons’ cameras will be able to see objects just two miles across.

That’s pretty darned small.

Pluto may not be New Horizons’ last stop.

Pending NASA approval, the probe should still have enough fuel to reach a second, smaller Kuiper Belt object a couple of years after the Pluto encounter. At least two potential targets have already been identified.

The original version of this story misstated the minimum size of the objects New Horizons can see. They are less than 100 yards across.

TIME Environment

New Study Links California Droughts to Ocean Temperatures

California Drought Dries Up Bay Area Reservoirs
A pipe emerges from dried and cracked earth that used to be the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Researchers look seaward for early drought detection

A spate of winter droughts across California may have emerged from the sea, according to new research that links dry spells on land to temperatures on the surface of the ocean.

Researchers sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found a pattern of ocean temperatures that appears to predict the build up of a high pressure ridge off the coast of California. Climate scientists say the ridge has effectively blocked winter rainstorms from rolling inland over the past three winters, depriving the state of rain during the wet seasons.

“It’s important to note that California’s drought, while extreme, is not an uncommon occurrence for the state,” said the report’s lead author, Richard Seager of Columbia University.

Scientists say the temperature readings might be used to predict drought seasons before they develop.

“It’s paramount that we use our collective ability to provide communities and businesses with the environmental intelligence they need to make decisions concerning water resources, which are becoming increasingly strained,” Seager said.

TIME space

NASA Spacecraft Wakes Up as It Approaches Pluto

NASA's New Horizon spacecraft awakens for meeting with Pluto
An undated artist's concept shows the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. NASA/EPA

New Horizons will come closest to the dwarf planet on July 14

A NASA spacecraft has emerged from hibernation in preparation for completing its nine-year, 2.9-billion mile journey to observe Pluto from up close, the space agency said.

Sending its signal at the speed of light, the New Horizons ship beamed a report down to Earth that it was back in active mode as of Dec. 6.

“Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” said Glen Fountain, the mission’s project manager. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

After tests early next year, the spacecraft will collect data and images about Pluto and its surrounding moons. It will come closest to the dwarf planet on July 14.

TIME animals

Here’s Why Wild Giraffes Could Go Extinct

Portrait of Thornicroft's Giraffes (giraffa camelopardalis
Giraffes in South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. Wolfgang Kaehler—LightRocket/Getty Images

Population down 40% in 15 years, new study shows

Wild giraffes are not just dropping in numbers at an alarmingly high rate–they’re doing so without much attention from governments and other protective agencies, according to a new report.

The population of wild giraffes has dropped by 40% over the last 15 years, according to a new survey by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). The organization calls the problem a potentially “silent extinction” due to a lack of public awareness, which revolves around African elephants, rhinos and gorillas, Mother Nature Network reports.

“Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna,” GCF executive director Julian Fennessy told Scientific American. “They’re really not getting the attention they deserve.”

The giraffe population has fallen due to habitat destruction by humans repurposing land for agricultural uses, according to MNN. Giraffes have also historically been hunted for their durable, patterned skin, a process that has reportedly increased in Tanzania due to a myth that giraffe brains and bone marrow can cure HIV.

But giraffe conservationists hope the wild giraffe population can be restored with some intervention. When the West African giraffe nearly went extinct in the 1990s due to human causes and droughts, conservationists won legal protection for the animals, and their population has since increased five-fold.

[MNN]

TIME Environment

California’s Drought Is Now the Worst in 1,200 Years

California Drought Dries Up Bay Area Reservoirs
A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

And it might not be ending anytime soon

California’s three years of low rainfall is the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years, according to a new study.

Record high temperatures combined with unusually low levels of precipitation have been the primary causes of the dry conditions, according to the study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“It was a surprise,” study author Kevin Anchukaitis told the Los Angeles Times of the findings. “I don’t think we expected to see that at all.”

The drought has led to tremendous economic costs in the state, including an expected $2.2 billion and 17,000 farming jobs this year alone, according to a report from the University of California, Davis. It’s also expected to increase food prices across the country.

And the problem may not be going away soon. About 44% of three-year droughts last continue past their third year, according to the Times.

TIME astonomy

The Most Beautiful Space Photos Of 2013

Cosmic photography is always breathtaking, so a full year's worth of images provides plenty of choices. Here are some of 2013's highlights.

TIME astronomy

Snapshots of the Heavens: Amazing Astronomy Photos

The Royal Observatory culled through over 800 entries from astronomers and astro-photographers around the world to release its compilation of the best astronomy photos of 2012. Astronomy Photographer of the Year is run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and Sky at Night Magazine. The competition drew a wide array of subjects captured by amateur and professional photographers from around the globe.

The Royal Observatory has culled through over 800 entries from astronomers and astro-photographers around the world to release its compilation of the best astronomy photos of 2012. The contest is run by Royal Observatory Greenwich and Sky at Night Magazine.

Should you have plans to be in London, an exhibition featuring the work is on display at the Royal Observatory Greenwich Planetarium throughout October 2012 in “The Universe Exposed: photographing the cosmos.”

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