Heard Island Landslide!

Landslide on Compton Glacier, Heard Island, 2017-07-21.  Image credit: processed by Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), using USGS/Landsat 8 data.
Landslide on Compton Glacier, Heard Island, 2017-07-21. Image credit: processed by Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), using USGS/Landsat 8 data.

On July 21, 2017, the Landsat 8 satellite imaged a fresh landslide on Heard Island, seen in the picture above. The slide occurred in the northeast portion of the island, on top of Compton Glacier, and I have annotated it for clarity in the image below.

Satellite image of Heard Island with annotation marking the region where the landslide is present.  Image credit: processing and annotation by Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), data from USGS/Landsat 8.
Satellite image of Heard Island with annotation marking the region where the landslide is present. Image credit: processing and annotation by Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), data from USGS/Landsat 8.

This landslide is quite easy to spot because of the relatively clear conditions over Heard Island and the very high contrast between the dark, presumably-basaltic rocks and the white snow of the glaciers. Given that it is presently austral winter and Heard Island is located south of the Antarctic Convergence, the rate of snow accumulation should be quite high. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to be covered by snow.

I am fairly convinced that this is a rock- or landslide rather than an eruption. The head of the flow is along the top of a steep ridge, and the infrared imagery shows no thermal anomaly in this part of the island.

What’s interesting to me is that this slide appears to have eroded some snow on top of the glacier which then caused a secondary avalanche from a north-facing slope. I’ve annotated this in the image below.

Region of secondary avalanche.  Image processing and annotation: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), data from USGS/Landsat 8.
Region of secondary avalanche. Image processing and annotation: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), data from USGS/Landsat 8.

This landslide has a run-out of about 2.5 km, an elevation drop of ~750 m, and a total affected area of ~0.8 km2. Several flow tongues are evident in the close-up image, even though the satellite imagery resolution is a modest 15 m/pixel.

Close-up of landslide on Compton Glacier, Heard Island.  Several flow paths of dark rock are evident here.  Image processing: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), data from USGS/Landsat 8.
Close-up of landslide on Compton Glacier, Heard Island. Several flow paths of dark rock are evident here. Image processing: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY), data from USGS/Landsat 8.

From this image, it looks like the rockfall mostly happened in the portion running west-to-east, then as it turned the corner to head northeast, transitioned to a surface flow. In many ways, this reminds me of the Mt. Dixon (New Zealand) rock avalanche in 2013 (coverage by Dave Petley here and here, among others). The video below is from the Mt. Dixon (NZ) rock avalanche, but is likely similar to what occurred on Heard Island.

A fly-over after the Mt. Dixon (NZ) rock avalanche provided more video of the rock avalanche scar.

I look forward to seeing more images of this slide as they come in. Heard Island is imaged roughly every 8 days by Landsat 8, which as far as I can tell is the only publicly available high-resolution imagery for the island now that EO-1 has been decommissioned.

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