A One-Stop Heard Island Expedition Primer

North-up view of Heard Island seen from the International Space Station, Nov. 24, 2011.   Image credit: NASA (public domain)

North-up view of Heard Island seen from the International Space Station, Nov. 24, 2011. Image credit: NASA (public domain)

Heard Island, the southernmost surface exposure of the Kerguelen Plateau, is an uninhabited Australian territory situated in the southern Indian Ocean, roughly 450 km SE of the Kerguelen Islands. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site both for its geologic significance as well as its relatively undisturbed ecosystem. Heard Island is unique among sub-Antarctic islands for having no known human-introduced species.

Physically, Heard Island is roughly circular, with a diameter of 20 km. In the center is Big Ben, a volcano which reaches to 2700 m and was observed erupting within the last 10 days. To the southeast is Elephant Spit, a long sandy spit which protrudes 10 km past the circular shape of the island. In the northwest is the Laurens Peninsula, where volcanoes have added another 10 km to the windward side of the island, against the erosive power of the heavy Southern Ocean seas.

On March 10th, an expedition team of 14 scientists and a ship’s crew of five will depart Cape Town, South Africa, aboard the Braveheart and begin the roughly (and rough) 10-day voyage southeast to the island. Upon arrival at Heard Island, our team will wait for sufficiently calm surf to safely land boats on the beach. About three weeks will be spent on the island before a 10-day voyage to Fremantle, Australia.

For accommodations, two HDT Global air-beam shelters (20’x21′) will be erected at Atlas Cove, in the northwestern part of the island and in the lee of the Laurens Peninsula. A covered walkway, also from HDT Global, will allow travel between tents without full exposure to the elements. Nearby is an emergency refuge (condition unknown) from previous Australian Antarctic Division expeditions, as well as the potentially asbestos-containing ruins of the Australian research base from the 1947-1955 expedition. The ruined base is in a restricted area on account of the asbestos, and expedition members will not enter that area. Restrooms will be in the form of a portable toilet, and portable generators will provide electricity for the site.

Airbeam tent set up at HDT Global headquarters.  This is one of two which will be set up on Heard Island.  Image credit: Cordell Expeditions.
Airbeam tent set up at HDT Global headquarters. This is one of two which will be set up on Heard Island. Image credit: Cordell Expeditions.

Although featuring a large, vegetation-free sand and gravel plain, Atlas Cove is not devoid of life. Our neighbors will include elephant seals, fur seals, four species of penguin—gentoo, king, macaroni, and rockhopper—and many other types of seabirds. Leopard seals have been seen at Atlas Cove as well. To the northeast on the Azorella Peninsula, a colony of the endemic Heard Island cormorants nests atop a moss-covered lava field (access is forbidden due to the sensitive mosses and potential for lava tube collapse).

Communications is an important part of this project. Already we have done a major outreach effort in person, via the internet, and on social media. Many different levels of communications need to be covered: ship-to-civilization, ship-to-island, on-island, island-to-civilization, and amateur radio from the island. We will have several different satellite phone/data systems, marine radios for ship-to-island contacts, and amateur radios for both on-island and worldwide communications. Being able to talk with field teams, the ship, and the outside world is a important for a safe expedition.

Soon after the tents and generators are set up, the antennas used to make contacts around the world will be erected. Amateur radio operators have given generously to support this expedition, and are often curious about science. Making contacts with these amateur stations helps to bring visibility to Heard Island, its unique geology and ecology, and the science being done to better understand and protect the World Heritage Site. Large numbers of amateur radio contacts will also provide an interesting dataset, because the locations one can reach will vary depending on conditions in the upper atmosphere (ionosphere). During the expedition, near-real-time maps of contacts can be found here.

At the camp, an automated weather station will be set up. Being far from human civilization and in the middle of the ocean, a record of weather at Heard Island would be valuable for assessing climate change in an under-sampled region of the globe.

Automated weather station for temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and wind measurements.  Our station will be similar but not identical to this one.  Image credit: US Marine Corps (public domain)
Automated weather station for temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and wind measurements. Our station will be similar but not identical to this one. Image credit: US Marine Corps (public domain)

When weather permits, a small field party will venture out to collect rock samples from the Laurens Peninsula. These samples will be used to answer questions like the environmental conditions when the rock was deposited, the processes that produced the unit (glacial, marine, volcanic, etc.), the duration of deposition, and the age (via biostratigraphy or radioisotopic dating). It is unknown when volcanism began on Heard Island, and whether the volcanism has been relatively continuous or more episodic. There have been no geologic research parties on the island since 1987, so this is an opportunity to collect important samples—especially because glacial retreat has exposed areas which were previously inaccessible. Field parties will not only collect samples, but will map the extent of glaciation and vegetation using GPS.

I will be taking the lead on a different geology project: capturing high-resolution panoramic pictures. Through collaboration with Prof. Callan Bentley and the GEODE project supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF DUE 1323419), we will have a Gigapan system on Heard Island. Using a robotic camera mount and a telephoto lens, a series of images are taken from one location. Upon return to camp, the images are transferred to a computer, where they are automatically stitched together with specialized software. The resulting images, which can be several gigapixels large, can be viewed using a web browser and offer pan-and-zoom capabilities (example from Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut, Canada). We will use these high-resolution images to provide context for geologic sampling, to document the extent of glaciers and the appearance of landforms, and potentially to estimate populations of seabirds or marine mammals. Because the images will be very large, they may not be available online until after we return to the developed world.

Another project I have in mind, which may or may not be feasible, is to do at least some basic population counts for eBird. There have been four eBird checklists submitted for Heard Island, but none in March or April. I feel fairly confident on my ability to distinguish different types of penguins (at least at close range). Other seabirds, such as albatrosses, petrels, and prions, will be more difficult for me. Perhaps another team member will be able to help out.

Rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands.  Image credit: David Stanley (CC-BY)
Rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands. Image credit: David Stanley (CC-BY)

Along the shoreline, our team will record the concentrations of anthropogenic marine debris (plastic bits, fishing gear, etc.). The amount of debris and extent to which it is interfering with seabirds and marine mammals at Heard Island is unknown, and we are particularly interested in documenting cases where skeletal remains have associated debris.

There are a few more projects, and more detailed project descriptions can be found on the expedition website project page. If the winds are calm enough a few quadcopters may even be deployed to take pictures in areas too dangerous for us to reach on foot.

Heard Island is home to virtually pristine ecosystems, and our expedition will take care to keep it that way. Rodents are a particularly high concern, so before the ship sails from Cape Town, it needs to be certified free of rodents and must follow several rat prevention protocols. All gear has to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before being brought onto the island. On the island, when we move between ice-free areas (Atlas Cove and Spit Bay), we have to clean everything again. Even the food we eat must be in line with ecosystem preservation: no fresh fruit or vegetables, no poultry or eggs (except egg powder kept in sealed containers opened only indoors), and no brassicas (broccoli, cabbages, turnips). This expedition isn’t just an extra-large camping trip.

After three weeks of science, radio, documentation, and outreach, we will pack everything back up onto the Braveheart and embark on a 10-day voyage to Fremantle, Western Australia. On the ship, to the extent we are functioning on what could well be very rough seas, we will probably get started on data analysis, further documentation, and the task of identifying the most compelling photographs.

Polar projection map of the route to and from Heard Island.  Image credit: Bob Schmieder/Cordell Expeditions
Polar projection map of the route to and from Heard Island. Image credit: Bob Schmieder/Cordell Expeditions

When possible, I will try to maintain my presence on Twitter (@i_rockhopper) and here on this blog during the expedition. However, I do not expect to have much time or bandwidth for such things when there is a lot of important field work to do. My hope is that I will get some posts queued up and scheduled for release during the expedition. However, failing that, the best place to find news will be the expedition website and the radio-focused website.

I’m very excited about these projects, and look forward to being on Heard Island in about six weeks!

Update Feb. 11, 2016: There has been a correction on the project collaboration for the Gigapans. The first version wrongly credited the NSF support to the MAGIC project, rather than its umbrella project, GEODE.

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3 thoughts on “A One-Stop Heard Island Expedition Primer”

  1. ask Jim to explain how he hits a softball so well when he has such a bad hitch in his swing! May the wind be with you and travel safely! Jim’s friend Scotty

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