On February 4th, Landsat 8 captured a clear view of the summit of Big Ben volcano, at Heard Island. Heard Island is a very cloudy location, so clear views are uncommon (I don’t have numbers, but would estimate <20%). However, the February 4th images are even more spectacular: they capture an ongoing volcanic eruption.
In the sharpened true-color image (above), four or five different lava/rock/debris flows are visible emanating from the summit. Using a false-color infrared image (below), two hot regions are apparent (red/orange/yellow), and are separated by about 250 meters. The longest of the flows stretches nearly 2 km, and drops from an elevation of roughly 2740 m to 1480 m (using 2002 Radarsat elevation data with 20 m contours). All three of the large flows to the west or southwest of the summit drop below 2000 m elevation at the toe.
In the sharpened true-color imagery, I have identified five rock and debris flows originating at the summit, as well as one potential avalanche. Annotation of these observations is found on the pictures below.
The streaky, varying lightness of the flow areas, presence of snow and ice, and steep terrain lead me to believe that what is showing up here are mixed snow/rock/lava debris flows, rather than pure lava flows. A mix of rocky debris and snow would not be out of line for a supraglacial eruption on a steep mountain. The longest flow drops nearly 1300 m along its 2000 m horizontal path according to the 2002 Radarsat elevations. I’ll be the first to admit that I am distrustful of the specifics of the Radarsat contours due to the rapidly changing landscape and an intervening 15 years, but I think that it manges to get the general picture right.
Southwestern Heard Island is a high-precipitation area, so rocks exposed on the surface of the glaciers are likely quite fresh. It probably won’t be long before most of the deposits are covered in snow again.
Speaking of snow, it looks as though there is a faint outline of an avalanche scarp/deposit on the northeast side of the summit, which I annotated below in green.
The two hot spots provide an interesting challenge for interpretation. Two scenarios come to mind quickly: there are two vents from which lava is issuing, or there is a lava tunnel from a summit crater down to a flow front or breakout. Analyzing the Landsat 8 OLI/TIRS infrared imagery from January 26th (most recent previous high-resolution image), only one hot spot is present—in the same place as the eastern hot spot in the February 4th infrared image. For spatial correlation without doing the whole image processing and GIS thing, use the forked flow to the south-southeast of the hotspot as a reference.
Due to a different time of day for imaging, there are significant shadows in the January image on the southwest side of ridges. It’s tricky to figure out what is going on for the flows (even in visible imagery), but the hot spot from January 26th is right on top of the eastern hot spot from February 4th.
Another thing which becomes apparent in the January image is the topography at the summit. The clouds form a blanket at an atmospheric boundary (and roughly-constant elevation), which is conveniently just below the elevation of the summit. A roughly circular hole in the clouds is present, and a conical mountain summit pokes through with the hot spot right in the center. That suggests that the second hot spot seen in the February 4th image is at a lower elevation—a possible flow front or breakout.
Excitement in the Mundane
Finding this eruption was a bit of a surprise to me: the low-resolution preview image for the Landsat data on EarthExplorer was so coarse that there wasn’t anything striking or out of the ordinary visible at the summit. Clouds covered most of the rest of the island. However, when I opened up the full-resolution color images (30 m/pixel), it was immediately evident that this was a special day. Sharpening the true-color bands with the high-resolution panchromatic band using QGIS made it pop all the more!
Upon seeing both the lava/debris flows and the thermal anomaly, I checked the MODIS volcanism (MODVOLC) site to see if the Terra and Aqua MODIS instruments had picked up thermal anomalies as well over the preceding week. They had, as shown below. Both satellites had recorded thermal anomalies at Heard on February 2nd and 3rd.