On January 10, 1992, on a voyage from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington, the cargo vessel Ever Laurel encountered rough seas and a container was washed off the ship. The container broke open and released its contents: 28,800 yellow rubber duckies and other floating bath toys. Since then, the duckies have been floating around, moved by wind and wave, and washed up on coasts around the world. By tracking the date and location of washed-up duckies, oceanographers can get a sense for the speed and direction of surface circulation at an oceanic scale. It’s like having 28,800 messages in bottles dumped from the same known location at the same known time.
Oceanographers sometimes want to be more precise in their measurements. The duckies probably floated very high in the water (at least at first), so that the wind could easily affect their direction and speed. Additionally, the rubber duckies are hard to track while they are at sea because they are small, few, and far between.
When more precise measurements are required, oceanographers turn to specially-designed drift buoys. These maintain a lower profile above water, and have a large “holey sock” sea anchor tethered to them in order to more accurately measure the ocean surface currents and not the wind. The buoys also have a thermometer—and sometimes additional sensors for salinity or barometric pressure—and a radio transmitter to establish the buoy’s position (by Doppler shift from 401.65 MHz, not GPS) and relay data via satellite back to the operations center.
Different floats can be used to measure temperature and salinity profiles, rather than surface currents. Argo floats are autonomous diving instruments, which can maintain neutral buoyancy and perform controlled ascent/descent to 2000 m. These floats make their temperature, pressure, and salinity measurements during a 6–12 hour ascent. Upon reaching the surface, they transmit their GPS location and the recorded data back to the operations center via satellite. Argo floats are not cheap, with each carrying a price tag of around $15k.
On the Heard Island Expedition, our team will be deploying both of these types of instruments. These measurements will improve understanding of ocean circulation, heat content, and salinity, as well as providing ground-truth sea surface temperature measurements for use in weather forecasting models. No rubber duckies will be deployed, but we’ll document any we find washed up on the beaches.
High above Earth’s surface, roughly 60–1000 km up, is an intriguing part of Earth’s upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. High-energy light (mostly ultraviolet and X-rays) causes electrons to be stripped away from gas molecules and neutral atoms, forming ions (and free electrons). The incoming light is most intense at the upper edge of the atmosphere (before it is absorbed), but the density of atoms and molecules is higher at lower altitudes (with atmospheric density highest at the Earth’s surface), leading to a peak in ionization in an intermediate region. Much of the interesting action in the ionosphere is in the regions between 60–300 km up, where the electron density is highest (though still very low compared to sea level).
Under many conditions, radio waves between 160 m and 10 m (with frequencies of 1.8–30 MHz) can be refracted by the ionosphere, enabling wireless communication around the globe. This long-distance propagation is, at least to me, a wondrous phenomenon.
Effectively, there is a low-frequency limit below which the radio waves are strongly absorbed by the atmosphere. At a sufficiently high frequency, the radio waves will not refract back down to Earth, and will simply pass into space. However, in the Goldilocks zone between those two frequencies (the lowest usable frequency and maximum usable frequency), propagation can occur.
With the amount and intensity of sunlight reaching the ionosphere changing throughout the course of the day, year, and solar cycle, the maximum and lowest usable frequencies will change as well. Additionally, since not all of the globe is illuminated at the same time, these limiting frequencies will vary spatially. Consequently, the maximum usable frequency in one location may be below the lowest usable frequency somewhere else, and no radio contact can be made between those points at that time.
Scattered around the world are many, many radio stations operated by licensed amateurs (sometimes also called hams; etymology unclear). One aspect of the hobby which many amateurs enjoy is making contact with amateurs in other countries around the world. Just like birders have a life list of the species of birds they have seen, amateur radio operators often keep a list of other countries and territories they have contacted, splitting this list further by frequency and operating mode (Morse code, voice, or digital). Currently, there are 340 recognized entities worldwide. Of those 340, many are small reefs, islands, or archipelagos, and may not have any permanent population—such as Heard Island, making them very rare. The last time Heard Island was heard on amateur radio was in 1997. It’s presently the longest-inactive of the 340 entities and ranks around #5 on most-wanted lists. Many amateurs have been looking forward to this expedition for a long time, and have been very generous in supporting it financially.
On Heard Island, our team will put up several amateur radio antennas at Atlas Cove, and set up approximately 6 radios. We will then make contacts with as many stations as we can on the various amateur frequencies, in a combination of voice, Morse code, and digital modes, using the callsign VKØEK. Contacts are extremely brief which helps keep the throughput high, giving more stations a new entity for their list and us a more statistically significant sampling of the ionospheric conditions.
Here’s how a voice contact might proceed:
[VKØEK]: Victor kilo zero echo kilo, listening up
[Din of thousands of stations calling with their callsigns]
[VKØEK]: Kilo zero bravo bravo charlie, five nine4
[KØBBC]: Five nine, thanks
[VKØEK]: Thank you
It’s not a long, drawn-out conversation, but is enough to be logged on both ends as having happened. Under ideal circumstances, within a minute or two, that contact will be shown on a near-real-time map of contacts from Heard Island. With luck and the cooperation of stations around the world, we should be able to log >100,000 contacts over the three-week period and gather some very interesting data about which frequencies work to which places at which times.
Of course, one other advantage of the amateur radio operation is that it is yet another means of communication in the case of an emergency. While we hope that no emergency communications are needed of any type, and we have a number of satellite communications options, amateur radio provides one more level of redundancy, and has been shown to be reliable in places where little or no infrastructure exists (e.g. following major earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.).
The ionosphere does amazing things, and our amateur radio operation will both yield data on the ionosphere as well as make many thousands of amateur radio operators happy that they were able to contact a new entity.
*** Notes and References ***
 For a point of reference, airplanes generally fly at a height of 10–13 km, the highest jet aircraft flight record is 37.6 km, and the International Space Station is at a height of roughly 340 km; even high-altitude weather balloons and rarely exceed 40 km.
 In the US, getting an entry-level amateur radio license requires passing a 35-question multiple-choice test on terminology, regulations, basic electronic theory, and operating practices, and is roughly equivalent to a written driver’s exam. Knowledge of Morse code is not required. For more on US licensing, see this page.
 Islands and outlying territories beyond certain distances from the main entity are considered separate, so Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands all count as separate entities even though they are US states, territories, or possessions. The gritty details on criteria for listing as separate entities is found in section 2 here.
 “Five nine” is a signal report, meaning “I hear you loud and clear”.
With Heard Island being remote and uninhabited, studying it can be a bit difficult. However, as readers of this blog (and my Twitter followers) are aware, one of the ways I have been preparing for the expedition is by keeping an eye on it using various satellites and their remote sensing capabilities. Sure, there is often cloudcover at Heard, but some days it’s clearer and on a few of those days, the satellites pass over.
Most of my information comes from NASA’s MODIS instruments, aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. These have at least every-other-day coverage of everywhere on Earth, although with a moderate resolution of 250 m/pixel. In the morning when I’m catching up on email and comics, I’ll check the near-real-time MODIS image page to see whether there are clear images of Heard Island from either instrument. Finding Heard Island can be difficult: I still usually find the Kerguelen Islands first, then look to the south-southeast. Many times there are indications such as vortices or gravity waves (not gravitational waves, those are different).
A related page is MODVOLC, which uses MODIS for volcano monitoring. In addition to visible light, MODIS can detect several wavelengths of infrared, and the signature from those wavelengths can be used to determine whether there is a likely volcanic eruption occurring at a given place.
MODIS is a great instrument in that it has daily or every-other-day coverage. However, the 250 m/pixel resolution can be quite limiting. For higher-resolution imagery, I look to the ALI instrument on NASA’s EO-1 satellite. These images are available (free registration required) from EarthExplorer, a data search portal from the USGS. ALI has a 30 m/pixel resolution on its color imagery, and 10 m/pixel resolution on the panchromatic image (total light intensity). These can be combined using QGIS into 10 m/pixel color images. By exploring the EO-1 page I found that members of the public can make requests for image targets! Imaging requests are subject to a bunch of conditions (availability of satellite, >30-day lead time, recommended >3 month window for imaging), but the request and any data generated from fulfillment of the request are free.
How did I come to know about these great resources? It takes time, searching, and some attention to detail. MODIS I learned about as a graduate student, from friends who used data products (not the true-color imagery) in their doctoral research on atmospheric chemistry. I came across EO-1 ALI from searching for images of Heard Island: I found some higher-than-MODIS resolution images from NASA which were good about indicating the source satellite/instrument. Citing image sources is incredibly useful, and I’m always disappointed when images (at least, non-screenshot images) are given without any sort of source information.
MODVOLC I learned about from the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, which cites the sources of their eruption reports. Information about the source plus a little searching yielded an interesting and useful data source.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today there is a new video out from scientists aboard the R/V Investigator which shows a volcanic eruption occurring from Mawson Peak, Heard Island. This is an exciting video not because it is unusual for an eruption to happen on Heard Island—the Global Volcanism Program shows activity on about an annual basis for the last few years—but because it is unusual for someone to be there to see it!
In the video above, a small plume can be seen over Mawson Peak, and a few lava flows. Given the terrain near the summit and the imagery below from lava flows in 2013, I think it is safe to say that the flows are heading down the southwest flank. As someone going to this island in less than two months, the direction of lava flows is important: it is away from the campsites which we intend to use.
From the video above, this appears to be an effusive eruption, where lavas gently flow out of the volcano. That eruptive style is consistent with a hot (~1100 °C), basaltic (low-SiO2) melt—eruptions with a high SiO2 content tend to have cooler lava and are more often explosive in nature. Basalts or other lavas (trachybasalts and basanites) with low SiO2 (48–52%) are typical of the Big Ben series of lavas (Big Ben being the volcano upon which Mawson Peak is located). Predicting that the lavas from this eruption would be generally low-SiO2 seems fairly safe, although our expedition is not equipped to undertake the sampling required to test that prediction.
 Barling, J.; Goldstein, S. L.; Nicholls, I. A. (1994) Geochemistry of Heard Island (Southern Indian Ocean): Characterization of an Enriched Mantle Component and Implications for Enrichment of the Sub-Indian Ocean Mantle. Journal of Petrology 35:1017-1053, doi 10.1093/petrology/35.4.1017.
Beginning in 1900, the Audubon Society began holding an annual bird population survey at Christmas (in contrast with the earlier tradition of shooting all the birds one could). Over the years, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has changed and grown, but still maintains its founding principles: a census of birds, taken around Christmas.
Today, counts are organized into 15-mile diameter circles, with teams of birders tallying not just how many different species they see over the course of a day, but the number of individuals of each species. In many cases, the large circle itself is subdivided, and teams of birders will count in a smaller area. Many groups meet at or before dawn for breakfast and planning. Some finish in time for lunch, others don’t stop for much of anything until it’s too dark to bird.
This weekend, I took part in the count, with a northern section of the Faribault (MN) circle. As a college student at Carleton College, I got involved in the count around Northfield, MN (within the Faribault circle), and have gone back to join the count a handful of times since graduating. One year I was in Berkeley for the CBC, which was a very different experience: no snow, and >100 species recorded.
Our group managed to see 19 species (on the higher side for that area in my experience), and around 1400 individuals. Most of those individuals, due to the relatively warm conditions here, were Canada geese (800) and mallards (450), which could be found on the open water. In years past when cold conditions have frozen over the lake and river, the waterfowl count (and total individuals count) are much lower.
Many of the other regulars were out and about: white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, goldfinches, crows, blue jays, and cardinals. We found a few surprises while counting: a belted kingfisher, a hooded merganser (among the 800 geese and 200 mallards on one small pond), a great blue heron, and five eastern bluebirds. The heron, bluebirds, and kingfisher are surprising in that they are quite uncommon in this area at this time of year (i.e. generally expected to migrate further south), but a quick search of eBird shows that they are not unheard of (note that the data include my CBC checklists).
The Christmas Bird Count is a great opportunity for new or newer birders, because you can (and probably will) be placed on a team with more experienced birders. You meet new people, see some birds—possibly adding a species or ten to your life list—and participate in citizen science. Professional scientists alone couldn’t do these detailed counts in this many areas all at once. While in many areas the annual count may have happened already, some areas might be still have a count coming up, so check to see when your local circle does its count.
Of course, if the count already happened and you don’t want to wait for next year, you can always participate in eBird. eBird is a project of the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory, and is a huge database of population counts. Participants submit their lists (including counts of individuals) with time, date, location, and some other information. The database keeps track of your life list (and many other lists), and also can show you data from all the aggregated observations. Are you wondering what birds you might see when you go on vacation? You can check that county/area in eBird, and get a graph showing the relative abundance of different birds seen in that area over the course of a year. Looking for a particular species? A map tool can show you where they have been seen, and at a detailed zoom level will show the individual observations.
To date, there have been no eBird checklists from Heard Island, or the ocean near Heard Island. However, I intend to do what I can (and I may not be alone in birding Heard Island) to get a few lists for eBird when I am there in March and April.
Previously, I’ve written a little about the computer issues that may come up on the Heard Island expedition, as well as some of my views on open access (I’m generally for it). Now I’d like to talk a little bit more about the software which will be on the expedition computers.
For the most part, we’re using open-source software wherever it’s practical. My heart broke a little when I realized we would not be able to run Linux for many of the computers because of some of the programs needed to support the ham radio side of the expedition. I prefer open-source software because it can help encourage experimentation and learning among amateur programmers, it has code which is verifiable (not subject to security through obscurity), can be shared freely, and does a better job supporting open formats free of restrictive proprietary specifications that force vendor lock-in.
Here are some of the software packages which are coming with us:
GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program), for raster graphics
Just as with ecology, having a healthy, diverse software ecosystem is important. It allows new ideas a chance to thrive, and for users who know what they are doing to add features and patch bugs themselves. More and more academic research is turning toward open-source tools, from R (statistics) to Git (of GitHub fame) to WordPress. We are choosing as much open source software and as many open formats as possible to help preserve the data for the future. Proprietary formats are subject to the corporation changing the format to force upgrades, vendors going out of business, and other issues. It also happens with open-source projects, but there are generally compatible programs which can handle your data.
Most of these programs above are ones I have been using for quite a while, and have significant user bases. Online support is pretty easily accessed via search engine. Try them out at home, and you may find them quite to your liking!