Heard Island’s Most Spectacular Outcrop

Head-on view of a block of Drygalski Formation (mixed volcanics and glacial sediments, here glacial sediments with volcanic clasts).  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Head-on view of a block of Drygalski Formation (mixed volcanics and glacial sediments, here glacial sediments with volcanic clasts). 53° 01.927′ S, 73° 23.704′ E. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

Heard Island is home to a spectacular outcrop. It’s the coolest outcrop I’ve ever seen, besting the Bishop Tuff tablelands, the potholes along the St. Croix River at Taylor’s Falls, Zion Canyon, The Badlands, and various outcrops in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Admittedly this outcrop doesn’t intrinsically have the scale of many of the others just mentioned—it’s a roughly car-sized block—but the power that went into creating it and the effect it created is truly amazing.

On its face (see above), it looks quite pedestrian: a block of lithified glacial till with clasts of vesicular basalt reaching up to grapefruit size. However, it’s important to consider it from a different perspective.

Side view of a block of Drygalski Formation.  From this view, it is much easier to see this is a ventifact (carved by the wind).  There is a pile of sand on leeward (left) side. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Side view of a block of Drygalski Formation. From this view, it is much easier to see this is a ventifact (carved by the wind). There is a pile of sand on leeward (left) side.
Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

When viewed from the side, a pile of sand in on the leeward (left, east) side of the block is evident. Additionally, the basaltic clasts of the rock face seem to be protecting the softer, tan-colored glacial matrix from the sand-blasting.

Here’s a close-up from an oblique angle:

Close-up, oblique view of the outcrop face.  Here the differential weathering (resistant grey clasts, weak tan matrix) is very apparent.  Spires of matrix are left to the leeward of the clasts, and are roughly horizontal. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Close-up, oblique view of the outcrop face. Here the differential weathering (resistant grey clasts, weak tan matrix) is very apparent. Spires of matrix are left to the leeward of the clasts, and are roughly horizontal.
Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

In the oblique view, the volcanic clasts making up the face of the outcrop are seen sheltering the matrix directly to the leeward from mechanical erosion. To tie all of these views together, I took a short video (embedded below).

This outcrop is located on the edge of a volcanic sand plain roughly 1.5×1.5 km. Strong westerly winds are present most of the time (9 m/s is average, measured at a site nearby).[1] In fact, the audio which accompanies the video is mostly wind noise, though there’s a little unintelligible chatter with my field partner, Carlos. Winds when the recording was made were “moderate” (for Heard Island) and from the west, exactly the kind of winds that shaped this outcrop. At the time of the recording, the winds weren’t strong enough to kick up much sand, nor were ice pellets falling from the sky, but on a gustier, stormier day, the face of this outcrop will take a beating.

Looking toward the ventifact outcrop from Windy City, Heard Island.  Although the outcrop itself is hidden behind the small reddish rise at center, this image illustrates the expanse of vegetation-free sand plain. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Looking toward the ventifact outcrop from Windy City, Heard Island. Although the outcrop itself is hidden behind the small reddish rise at center, this image illustrates the expanse of vegetation-free sand plain.
Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

In my travels and geo-adventures, I’ve seen differential weathering and ventifacts (outcrops shaped by wind), but never so strikingly combined as at this outcrop on Heard Island. That’s why I can confidently say it’s the coolest outcrop I’ve seen on Heard Island or anywhere else in the world.

[1] Thost, D., Allison, I. “The climate of Heard Island” in Heard Island: Southern Ocean Sentinel, ed by K. Green and E. Woehler. Surrey Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton 2005, p. 52-68.

The Making of the Windy City Gigapan

Looking eastward at Windy City, with a person for scale. The gigapanned portion of the outcrop is at right, but two spires of similarly eroded rock outcrop further to the north of the photographed portion. The stake coming out from the outcrop is a marker for one of our temperature/light intensity sensors. Image credit: Carlos Nascimento
Looking eastward at Windy City, with a person for scale. The gigapanned portion of the outcrop is at right, but two spires of similarly eroded rock outcrop further to the north of the photographed portion. The stake coming out from the outcrop is a marker for one of our temperature/light intensity sensors.
Image credit: Carlos Nascimento

In my previous post, I discussed the gigapan of Windy City. However, the making of that gigapan was quite the adventure in field work.

After the Azorella Peninsula gigapan, the unit was packed up and taken back aboard the Braveheart for a trip to the southeast portion of the island. Rough north winds were expected, and with no protection afforded against those winds and swells from Atlas Cove, the ship had to move. Our expedition leader and two scientists not involved in the radio operations left camp and went to ride out the storm south of Stephenson Lagoon. At that time, it had become clear that I personally would not be able to go to Stephenson Lagoon—an area which was an extremely high priority for a gigapan image. I put fresh batteries into the gigapan mount, and sent it on its way. Sadly, in the almost four hours the team had on the shores of Stephenson Lagoon, they did not have an opportunity to take a gigapan. I’ll have to go back for that one!

Upon their return to camp, I knew since they had not attempted any gigapanning that there were fresh batteries in the unit. As the end of the expedition drew near, it was time to get the gigapan done at Windy City. Mid-morning, Carlos joined me for a trip to the outcrop (about 1.4 km each way). Although we didn’t have a bright sunny day, it was dry with a temperature around 5 °C. When we reached the outcrop and everything was set up, I turned on the gigapan mount. Nothing happened. With new batteries and a limited task, I hadn’t brought the whole kit with me. We headed back to camp, arriving in time for lunch.

Several of the rechargeable batteries I had for the gigapan had been sitting on the charger and were ready to go. I tossed those into the battery holder, put it under my arm to keep warm, and headed out with Carlos once again. At the outcrop I set up the rig again. When everything was set to go, I removed the batteries from inside my jacket, and put them into their slot. I powered it on. The LCD display brightened, but displayed an error message: Button-pusher disconnected or plugged in backwards. Cycling the power on and off didn’t fix it. Everything was as it had been before when it worked. Once again, this was a problem I was unable to deal with at the outcrop.

Back in camp, Carlos looked online for a solution while I tried to see if anything was likely to have come disconnected, although our team had been very gentle with the unit. Nothing stood out. Eventually we found online that the error is commonly caused not by a disconnected or backwards button-pusher, but by a low voltage. That made a bit more sense. Out came the volt-meter, and two sets of six AA alkaline batteries were verified to be fresh. One set went into the battery holder, the other went into a storage case. Now that it was late in the afternoon, Carlos had to report for radio duty, but Adam was willing to come with me—I needed this gigapan before the light died, as there was no guarantee that I would have the weather conditions or time to get it later.

Adam and I hurried over to the outcrop, the light already beginning to fade. I set up quickly, got the batteries out from my jacket, and set up the gigapan.

Please, light, stay with us long enough to complete this shot. Please, batteries, keep up your voltage!

It was clear from the beginning that the shot would not be truly completed. Somewhere in the middle either the light would die or the batteries would. Eventually, both did at about the same time. We quickly put everything back into the packs and headed back for camp. It was getting dark, but we arrived just in time for dinner and the start of my shift at the radio desk.

Although it was too late to be of use, I asked on Twitter what some of the other cold-weather folks had done about their gigapans. By the end of my four-hour radio shift, I had responses from @rschott and @callanbentley. Evidently this is a common problem, which is fought by insulating the gigapan unit as well as possible, and using hand/toe-warmers to add a little heat.

I think it’s time to ask Gigapan to make some design adjustments to improve the cold-weather operation of the units. It wasn’t all that cold where I was gigapanning, yet I still couldn’t get 15 minutes of operation on fresh batteries at 3–5 °C.

Windy City Gigapan

Processing the Windy City gigapan.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Processing the Windy City gigapan. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

This is the third in a series of three posts about the gigapan images taken on Heard Island (1: Big Ben, 2: Azorella Peninsula), with more information about the Windy City gigapan.

Windy City is located about 200 meters south of Atlas Cove, in the northwest portion of Heard Island. It comes from a fin of Drygalski Formation rocks, which are a mix of glacial sediments and volcanics, and is mostly surrounded by sand and gravel plains.

Looking closely at the outcrop, there are a number of interesting things to observe. First, there are the striking roughly-horizontal marks, which are particularly evident toward the base of the outcrop. Second, the outcrop is made of massive, fine-grained jointed rocks with few vesicles. Third, there are quite a few fractures within the rock, with discolorations along many of the cracks.

All of these observations combine into a remarkable tale of how Windy City has been formed. The massive, fine-grained, and jointed appearance leads to the conclusion that we are looking at a volcanic outcrop, rather than glacial sediments. Fracturing and discoloration have been brought on by weathering from the very wet, near-freezing environment. Finally, the wind has been a huge factor! Sand, gravel, snow, and graupel (ice pellets) have all been blasted against the side of this outcrop, primarily from the west (at right). On Heard Island, a 9 m/s wind is typical, with maximum recorded gusts exceeding 50 m/s on three days during the 1948-1954 period.[1] The high winds sandblast the outcrop, leading to the horizontal striations.

Here are a few wider-angle shots for context, and with better light than I ended up with for the gigapan.

Windy City outcrop, viewed from the north.  The gigapan image covers from my right arm to roughly the center of this image.  Image credit: Carlos Nascimento
Windy City outcrop, viewed from the north. The gigapan image covers from my right arm to roughly the center of this image. Image credit: Carlos Nascimento

Looking eastward at Windy City, with a person for scale.  The gigapanned portion of the outcrop is at right, but two spires of similarly eroded rock outcrop further to the north of the photographed portion.  The stake coming out from the outcrop is a marker for one of our temperature/light intensity sensors. Image credit: Carlos Nascimento
Looking eastward at Windy City, with a person for scale. The gigapanned portion of the outcrop is at right, but two spires of similarly eroded rock outcrop further to the north of the photographed portion. The stake coming out from the outcrop is a marker for one of our temperature/light intensity sensors.
Image credit: Carlos Nascimento

I also managed a close-up shot of one of the pieces of float.

Float rock at Windy City.  The 1:1000 metric scale at right is effectively a mm scale.  Some olive/green crystals are visible, mostly 1-5 mm in their longest dimension, which are likely olivine (possibly clinopyroxene). Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Float rock at Windy City. The 1:1000 metric scale at right is effectively a mm scale. Some olive/green crystals are visible, mostly 1-5 mm in their longest dimension, which are likely olivine (possibly clinopyroxene).
Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

[1] Thost, D., Allison, I. “The climate of Heard Island” in Heard Island: Southern Ocean Sentinel, ed by K. Green and E. Woehler. Surrey Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton 2005, p. 52-68.