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.

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