Compton Glacier Calving Seen from Space

Heard Island on a clear morning, seen by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite.  July 31, 2015.  Image credit: NASA GSFC (Terra/MODIS).
Heard Island on a clear morning, seen by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. July 31, 2015. Image credit: NASA GSFC (Terra/MODIS).

July 31st was a remarkable day on Heard Island, for several reasons. First, the weather was clear—a rare event in itself. Second, both NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites had Heard Island reasonably near the center of their swath images. That’s not super-rare, but it’s probably <25%. Third, not only was the weather clear, but it was clear for both satellite overpasses, so both Terra and Aqua had good views of the island.

Many days, as I check the satellite images to see if Heard Island is visible, I end up playing “where in this image is Heard Island”. Imagine my surprise when I saw the Terra MODIS preview image from the morning pass, and there was a nice, bright white spot with some swirling grey vortices pointing toward it. The full-resolution image is shown above (cropped). It’s exactly the charismatic image I watch for, even though the resolution is moderate.*

I scrolled down the page to the Aqua MODIS images, which come from the early afternoon. Although Heard Island was a little off to the side of the image, leading to some artifacts, it was still free of the usual obscuring clouds. What a day! Two great images from when the island was within the usable part of the MODIS swaths.

Heard Island, standing in stark contrast to the dark blue waters of the Indian Ocean, July 31, 2015.  Image credit: NASA GSFC (Aqua/MODIS).
Heard Island, standing in stark contrast to the dark blue waters of the Indian Ocean, on the afternoon of July 31, 2015 as seen by NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image credit: NASA GSFC (Aqua/MODIS).

As I looked more closely, I noticed something odd about the afternoon image: Compton Lagoon, in the northeast corner of the island, had a very odd shape. Usually it looks rather like it does in this map from the Australian Antarctic Division:

Topographic map of Heard Island, published July, 1999.  Compton Lagoon is prominent in the northeast.  Image Credit: Australian Antarctic Division.
Topographic map of Heard Island, published July, 1999. Compton Lagoon is prominent in the northeast. Image Credit: Australian Antarctic Division.

Let’s look more closely at the satellite images.

Heard Island, morning of July 31, 2015. (Terra MODIS, as above; annotations mine).
Heard Island, morning of July 31, 2015. (Terra MODIS, as above; annotations mine).
Heard Island, afternoon of July 31, 2015.  (Image from Aqua MODIS, as above; annotations mine).
Heard Island, afternoon of July 31, 2015. (Image from Aqua MODIS, as above; annotations mine).

Some of the difference between images comes from the North Barrier ridge, which runs from high up the volcano down to the west of Compton Lagoon, bounding the Compton Glacier to the northwest. With the sun in the northeast in the morning and northwest in the afternoon, the ridge stands out much more in the afternoon when it casts a shadow on the light glacier.

The lagoon, however, is quite different. Much of what was blue lagoon in the morning is grey in the afternoon, and the glacier seems to be a bit darker grey near its toe. I interpret that as evidence for a significant calving event, where ice, snow, and rocks from the glacier break off and slide/fall into the lagoon. A wind from the northeast (evidenced by the clouds) helps to keep the floating ice toward the west end of the lagoon.

Of course, it would be nice to have a second image showing the ice floating around in the lagoon, or a higher resolution image of the glacier. Unfortunately, since these images were taken, the images have been cloudy and/or off to the side of the field where distortion and artifacts are at their worst. I was hoping that the EO-1 satellite or Landsat 8 would get a good image with their 30 m resolution, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. That just goes to highlight how incredible these images are!

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* That’s the MOD in MODIS, the MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer; at its best (directly beneath the satellite) the resolution is 250 m/pixel.

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