Tag Archives: Heard Island Expedition

Book Discussion: The End of Night

Moon over Berkeley, and a lot of stray light.  Image credit: laikolosse (CC-BY-NC).
Moon over Berkeley, and a lot of stray light. Image credit: laikolosse (CC-BY-NC).

Recently I’ve been reading an interesting book by Paul Bogard, The End of Night. It’s non-fiction, and is based around the increasing amounts of night-time light in the developed world—and why that may not be a great thing.

Just 200 years ago, before electric lights, the night sky—complete with the swath of the Milky Way, and other naked-eye observable galaxies—was spectacular on any clear night from anywhere on Earth. Today, however, few in the developed world see that a few times a year, let alone on every clear night. Instead, our nights look like they do in the photo of Berkeley above, with a milky haze of yellow-orange light from the 589 nm sodium D lines (admittedly there is some fog in the picture too).

Darkish summer skies in Canada; many stars are visible, and a hint of the Milky Way can be discerned.  Pale orange light is from the Sun being relatively near the horizon even in the middle of the night.  Image credit: laikolosse (CC-BY-NC).
Darkish summer skies in Canada; many stars are visible, and a hint of the Milky Way can be discerned. Pale orange light is from the Sun being relatively near the horizon even in the middle of the night. Image credit: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/laikolosse (CC-BY-NC).

There were four key messages I took from the book.

First, straightforwardly, is that a dark night sky is incredibly beautiful, and we should preserve that beauty. Seeing the Milky Way clearly with the naked eye can be a powerful experience especially for those who have rarely or never have. Unfortunately, very few places in western Europe (or the eastern half of the US, or populated areas in the western US) are near dark skies. Bogard cites a statistic that 80% of children born in the US today will never see a truly dark sky. In my experience as a teaching assistant at Berkeley going on a geology field trip to Bishop, CA and the eastern Sierras, I can attest to a large proportion of the students being quite surprised by all the stars visible from such dark skies.

Adding light doesn’t make it easier to see. Sure it makes it easier to see initially when you first go from the light into the dark, but if the light isn’t in the right places, it actually makes it harder to see. I have biked at night on roads where the streetlights made it very difficult for me to see the road, because the lights were so bright and everything else so dark. Glare from bad lighting makes the lighting less effective. It’s also light going places it isn’t needed or wanted, which is wasted energy (and money, and CO2 where electricity comes from fossil fuels). The picture at top has a number of lights shining directly into the camera, miles away; all that light is wasted and unneeded. Bedrooms have light streaming in from outside even at night, which causes its own problems.

People are evolutionarily adapted to sleep at night, and our bodies expect for it to be dark at that time. Longer periods of light are decreasing the amount and quality of sleep we get (particularly night-shift workers), and those have significant detrimental public health consequences including increased risk of cancer.[1 and references therein] Turning off or dimming the lights at night—especially blue light and light in the bedroom—could help us sleep better and be healthier for it. Minimizing the number of people who are working at all hours of the night and thus exposed to the health risks of doing so would also be good, both from a moral and economic perspective.

Finally, it was made clear throughout that the point here isn’t to turn off all the lights and go back to the stone age, but rather to be thoughtful and deliberate about our outdoor lighting. Making light fixtures which put light where it should go (i.e. down on the ground, not out to the sides or up) and using them only when needed is fairly simple. How much light is really needed at a car dealership, ice rink, or empty parking lot in the middle of the night? Gas stations are often extremely brightly lit, yet most of that light isn’t needed to pump gas or wash the bugs off the windshield. In fact, pulling out of a bright gas station at night can be dangerous since your eyes will have adjusted to the brighter environment and it will take a few minutes for them to dilate again and bring your vision back to its optimum level.

Supposing I turn off my 60 W worth of porch lights (sadly not the dark-sky friendly type) for an average of 10 hours/day year round (3650 h), that reduces my electricity consumption by 219 kWh (780 MJ). At a residential electric rate of $0.08/kWh, that translates to a savings of $17.52 annually, as well as a CO2 savings of 150 kg (3400 moles). It also makes my bedroom darker.

I went outside one night recently when it was clear (albeit humid). I have an urban view, and can only see ~25% of the sky. From my deck, I counted twenty stars. That’s right, I could only see 20 stars. Extrapolating for the full-sky view gets me up to 80, and if we want to be generous we could round that to 100. Compare that to the dark(ish) sky pictured above, and you can see that there’s really a huge difference. In this neighborhood, too, there’s enough stray light running around (even in the summer when leaves block it) that turning off my outside lights isn’t making it hard to get around.

Night can be a pretty neat time. In college, I would occasionally go cross-country skiing at night. Sure, I would have a headlamp with me, but on a clear night I typically didn’t use it. Even cloudy nights, thanks to some local light pollution, were easy to ski without the aid of the headlamp. Being outside at night in the crisp, quiet solitude of a snowy winter was amazing. It’s part of what I missed while in graduate school in a bright, noisy city where it never snows.

After reading this book, I’m looking forward to the Heard Island expedition even more, because the southern ocean, like Antarctica, is home to pristine skies free from artificial lights. Of course, unlike Antarctica, the likely sky condition is mostly cloudy or cloudy, so getting a clear night may be very rare. That will only serve to make the moment more special, if and when it happens. I will bring a camera, and I will try to get a picture of such an event. But that picture will be but a still, lifeless version of the magic at Heard Island.

[1] Hansen, J. J Natl Cancer Inst (2001) 93, p. 1513–1515. DOI: 10.1093/jnci/93.20.1513


Geoscientist’s Toolkit: QGIS

QGIS screenshot, showing Heard Island.  Brown is land/rock, blue are lagoons, and the dotted white is glacier.
QGIS screenshot, showing Heard Island. Brown is land/rock, blue are lagoons, and the dotted white is glacier.

One of a geoscientist’s most useful tools is a geographic information system, or GIS. This is a computer program which allows the creation and analysis of maps and spatial data. Perhaps the most widely used in academia is ArcGIS, from ESRI. However, as a student and hobbyist who likes to support the open-source software ecosystem, I use the free/open-source QGIS.

QGIS can be used to make geologic maps of an area, chart streams, and note where certain geologic features (e.g. volcanic cones) are present. For instance, at the top of this post is a map of Heard Island that I’ve been playing with, from the Australian Antarctic Division. It is composed of three different layers, each published in 2009: an island layer (base, brown), a lagoon layer (middle, blue), and a glacier layer (top, dotted bluish-white).

I believe I have mentioned here previously that one interesting thing about working with Heard Island is that with major surface changes underway (glacial retreat, erosion, minor volcanic activity), the maps become obsolete fairly quickly. This week I have been learning about creating polygons in a layer, so that I can recreate a geologic map from Barling et al. 1994.[1] One issue I’ve come up against, though, is that the 1994 paper has some areas covered in glacier (from 1986/7 field work), whereas my 2009 glacier extent map shows them to be presently uncovered. In fact, even the 2009 map shows a tongue of glacier protruding into Stephenson Lagoon (in the southeast corner), while recent satellite imagery shows no such tongue.

During the Heard Island Expedition in March and April, 2016, I hope that we will have time to go do a little geologic mapping. Creating some datasets showing the extent of glaciation (particularly along the eastern half of the island) and vegetation, as well as updating the geologic map to include portions which were glaciated in 1986/7, would be a worthwhile and seemingly straightforward project.

QGIS itself is much more than a mapping tool (not that I know how to use it), and can analyze numeric data which is spatially distributed, like the concentration of chromium in soil or water samples from different places on a study site. QGIS provides a free way to get your hands dirty with spatial data and mapping, and is powerful enough to use professionally. Users around the globe share information on how to use it, and contribute to its development.

For those looking to go into geoscience as a career, I would strongly recommend learning how to use it. I didn’t learn GIS in college (chemists don’t use it much), and somehow avoided it in grad school. But I regret not having put time in to learn it sooner. There’s all kinds of interesting spatial data, and a good job market for people with a GIS skillset (or so I hear). I have only scratched the surface of QGIS’s capabilities with my use of it, but I definitely intend to keep learning. You can probably follow the day-to-day frustrations and victories on my Twitter account (@i_rockhopper).


[1] 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, p. 1017–1053. doi: 10.1093/petrology/35.4.1017

Heard Island Expedition Update: T-7 Months

Visualization of a proposed Heard Island shelter setup, using two HDT Global airbeam tents.  Each shelter is 20'x21'.  Image credit: Bob Schmieder [?].
Visualization of a proposed Heard Island shelter setup, using two HDT Global airbeam tents. Each shelter is 20’x21′. Image credit: Bob Schmieder [?].

It’s only seven months until the Heard Island expedition leaves Cape Town, South Africa, heading for Heard Island. Preparations are really beginning to get going!

This morning (Minnesota time) we had a conference call with the entire on-island team (such as were able to join). Scheduling that can be tricky, because we have team members scattered around the globe, including from Australia, the US, and Ukraine.

From the conference call, it was clear that things are coming along nicely. We are gaining familiarity at least with the voices of other team members, so that when people are speaking they don’t need to identify who they are. Planning for the shelters is mostly done. Camp layouts have been presented, and are up for argument. Logistics are coming along, but there is a lot to discuss: how much testing of equipment is required, where should it take place, and how do we get the materials from that place to Cape Town in an efficient manner?

For the past few weeks, the satellite link has been worrisome. Although there are two satellites which may be “visible” from Heard Island (in the radio sense, not the optical), they were not very high above the horizon. With terrain being significant on the island (camp is in a valley), and potential for local weather—especially low-layer marine weather—to negatively affect the satellite radio link, we were concerned that there would not be reliable data/phone connection from the island. Our expedition relies on that data link for safety, to keep in touch with off-island expedition headquarters, as well as to help the VK0EK ham radio operations with real-time contact reporting.

Fortunately, while discussing the expedition with satellite service providers, our satellite team found that one of the satellites in the constellation has been repositioned over the Indian Ocean. We will now have a satellite quite high in the sky, and communications are likely to be reliable. Bandwidth may not be very high still, but it’s better than from Pluto.

I’ve been doing some things for the expedition recently, too. Our Bay Area team has acquired laptops which will be used for the radio operation, and I have been helping with software configuration specifications for that. I have also been involved in radio team discussions about how to set up these portable stations—as an apartment-dweller, I know some things about setting up and tearing down stations. Simpler is better, as are plans with fewer moving parts (and less to haul on and off the island).

Last month, I tweeted a live Q&A session, discussing some of the science that has been done (or is proposed) on Heard Island. Check out the hashtag #HeardQuestions for that, and keep an eye out for another Q&A sometime (in a few months).

My physical training continues as well. I’ve been running, biking a little, doing core strength exercises, and stretching a lot more. Yesterday I was even convinced to take part in a 5k run. It has been several years since I last ran a 5k race, and while I’m not in the shape I was ten years ago, I definitely achieved my goals.

With seven months to go, I’m feeling really good about this expedition. Here’s hoping it comes off that well!

Physical Preparations

Cross-country skiing in Minnesota.
Cross-country skiing in Minnesota.

Going on an expedition to Heard Island will require me to be in good physical condition. There are tents, generators, and other gear to haul. Hiking around on the island may be a bit treacherous, with burrows for nesting seabirds scattered across the already uneven terrain.

In preparation, I’m adding activity to my usual routine: more running, biking, backpacking, and, come winter, cross-country skiing. Some of my college friends (and cousins) convinced me to sign up for a hilly 51 km ski race next February, and others have been trying to get me to register for a 24-hour run/walk (for which I was a support crew member this year).

Fortunately, most of this preparation falls in with what I was already hoping to do. Riding my bike around town more is good for my health and reduces fossil fuel usage. Running, biking, and backpacking will keep me in shape for skiing once the snow starts to fall (despite Minnesota’s reputation, it will probably be at least October before there’s enough snow to ski on). And, of course, backpacking tends to lead to adventures of its own. Perhaps I’ll hike part of the Superior Trail (along the north shore of Lake Superior), or some of the trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Getting myself into shape for this expedition probably won’t be a huge deal (I’m not trying to lose weight for it), but if I want to be competitive with the ol’ ski team friends (and cousins), I need to step it up a notch or two. Were I to do the 24-hour run/walk, the goal would be to complete a marathon—I don’t think I’ve ever pushed past 10 miles in one run.

Counting Birds on Heard Island

Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) on Heard Island.  Image credit: K. Lawton.
Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) on Heard Island. Image credit: K. Lawton.

Heard Island is a wonderful place for birds. Indeed, Heard Island and the McDonald Islands are the only sub-Antarctic islands without introduced macrofauna, and which have had very little human influence (part of why they are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site).[1] Freedom from human influence makes these islands scientifically very interesting, because it is extremely rare to have a site which is that pristine and that isolated.

The species diversity for birds on Heard Island is not very high, even though the number of birds is very large—in the millions.[1,2] Only 19 species breed on the islands, with another 28 species recorded as visitors or seen at sea within the region around the islands.[2] Among the species breeding on the island are four types of penguins (king, gentoo, macaroni, and [my personal favorite,] rockhopper), and three species of albatross (wandering[?], black-browed, and light-mantled sooty). Two species, the Heard Island sheathbill and the Heard Island cormorant, are endemic to Heard Island and the McDonald Islands.

To study the populations of these birds over time, it is necessary to take a census of the populations periodically. On the face, this seems relatively straightforward, and will be familiar to anyone who has participated in the Audubon Society‘s Christmas Bird Count or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s eBird program [ed.: both are excellent citizen science projects you can do in your area, and I highly encourage you to get involved with them.].

On Heard Island, surveying the bird populations is very difficult. Not only do some of the species look similar (e.g. rockhopper and macaroni penguins), but there can be vast colonies of them. Heard Island is home to an estimated 1 million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins alone![2] Adding to the challenge, some species nest in burrows underground, so a photograph of the area may not help estimate the numbers like it might when the birds and nests are visible. With the exception of the penguins, birds on Heard Island can fly, and will often do so. If you have ever watched birds in your backyard, you may know it can be difficult to count the number of chickadees (or hummingbirds, or other species) visiting, because they move around a lot and look alike.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) colony on Heard Island.  Image credit: Eric Woehler.
King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) colony on Heard Island. Image credit: Eric Woehler.

Another challenge on Heard Island is that many places are quite inaccessible to humans. Sheer cliffs, unstable slopes, and glacial crevasses keep people away from nesting areas.

Even the act of counting birds can put some of them at risk: if a nesting pair is disturbed by a human—even 100 m away—they may fly off the nest long enough for a scavenger to fly in and eat the egg or the chick.[2]

Detailed surveys of the breeding areas can provide important information about the migrations of the birds. Antarctic terns, which had been banded at Bird Island, South Africa, were later observed nesting on Heard Island.

The strategy for counting birds is a little complicated. For small numbers of birds (in my backyard at home, or rare birds on Heard Island), they can be counted individually; this works up to around 50 birds. Beyond that, the numbers are likely to become estimates, though high-resolution photographs of nesting colonies provide a record which can be carefully scrutinized later for more exact numbers. When estimating birds in the field, you would count the number in a small area (one binocular field-of-view, or a 10×10 m region of ground. That gives an estimate of the birds-per-area. Multiplying by the larger area (as multiples of the smaller one) would give an estimated total number of birds.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in front of Lambeth Bluff, Heard Island.  Image credit: Eric Woehler.
King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in front of Lambeth Bluff, Heard Island. Image credit: Eric Woehler.

At sea, another method is used. Because birds are not standing or sitting on a nest, they are counted (species and number) for ten-minute periods, with the location, date, and time noted.

When I go to Heard Island, I will do some birding. My life list has no penguins on it, and I intend to change that. I will not have the time to do a full survey of the birds, but will probably get at least a few estimates of a colony or two. I also intend to do some at-sea counts if the weather and sea-state permit. These observations will be added to the eBird database when I return to civilization after the expedition. One additional challenge I will have is that all of the birds of Heard Island will be life birds for me, and I am not especially good with my field identification of new birds. If you know of a good field guide, please let me know; I’d love to have a good reference to bring with me.


[1] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/577 UNESCO organization. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
[2] Woehler, E. J. “Status and conservation of the seabirds of Heard Island”, in Heard Island: Southern Ocean Sentinel (Eds K. Green and E. Woehler) Surrey Beatey & Sons, 2006, p. 128-165.

Expedition Update: Major Changes

Route to Heard Island for the expedition.  Image credit: Bob Schmeider/Cordell Expeditions.
Route to Heard Island for the expedition. Image credit: Bob Schmeider/Cordell Expeditions.

There have been some major changes to the Heard Island expedition plans, outlined officially here.

  • The expedition has been postponed, with the dates now being set for March 6 to April 20, 2016.
  • The port of departure has been changed to Cape Town, South Africa, instead of Fremantle, Australia.
  • Our expedition will be aboard the RV Braveheart, instead of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.

My plans for doing science on the island remain generally unchanged. If anything, these changes will make the scientific goals I have more important to me.

The smaller ship and later departure will mean rougher seas, so plan for a surge in sales of Dramamine and ginger not long before I sail.

Penguins, elephant seals, and… reindeer?

Reindeer.  Image credit: Perhols (CC-BY).
Reindeer. Image credit: Perhols (CC-BY).

This week, the expedition I will be taking part in later this year announced an updated itinerary, which includes a stop at the Kerguelen Islands.

Kerguelen is the closest land to the Heard and McDonald Islands, lying about 450 km to the north-northwest. Kerguelen is a French territory (Terres australes et antarctiques françaises, French Southern and Antarctic lands), and has a permanent scientific base with 50–100 personnel.

Like Heard, Kerguelen is of a volcanic origin (part of the eponymous Kerguelen Plateau), and has glaciers covering higher elevations. However, Kerguelen is much larger, and features many more U-shaped (glacial) valleys, as well as fjords. Temperatures at the French base of Port-aux-Français are generally a little warmer than at Atlas Cove on Heard Island, but are still generally cold, wet, and windy.

Map of the Kerguelen Islands.  Image credit: Varp (public domain).
Map of the Kerguelen Islands. Image credit: Varp (public domain).

Unlike Heard Island, where no human-introduced species are known, Kerguelen has both native and non-native species in the wild. It is one of two places in the world (the other being South Georgia island) where penguins, elephant seals, and reindeer can be found together. Reindeer were introduced to Kerguelen and South Georgia during the days of whaling, as a source of local food for sailors. However, after fur seal and elephant seal stocks had been decimated and sealing and whaling activities in the region ceased, so too did the human predation on the reindeer. Now, with no predators to eat them, the reindeer have been out-competing some of the native animals. In South Georgia, a reindeer hunt has been undertaken to drastically reduce their numbers, while at Kerguelen, scientists are conducting studies of the number of reindeer and their impacts on the local ecosystem.

I am looking forward to visiting Heard Island and the Kerguelen Islands. It will be interesting to compare the two in person, to see what similarities and differences I can notice.