Yesterday, a big snowstorm dumped about 30 cm (12″) of snow on Minneapolis, and high winds blew that snow around. On my way home from lab, the train worked well, but I definitely chose correctly when I decided to walk home from the train (2-3 km) rather than take the bus. The roads were a mess, but walking wasn’t too bad.
When that much snow falls that quickly, skiing can be much better for getting around than driving. After dinner I hopped on the skis to go tour around the neighborhood and enjoy being on snow for the first time this winter. I’d barely skied half a block when a car got stuck turning and I helped get them through the intersection.
Skiing around the lake was wonderful. There’s something magical about the quiet of lots of new-fallen snow, and even though the skiing was slow-going, it was fun. However, with it being dark and my being on skis for the first time this winter, I didn’t bring a camera with me.
This morning I went out again and took the camera, because there was a lot of neat stuff to be seen. After helping two more cars get unstuck, I made it to the lake. There were tracks: skis (see photo above), boots, snowshoes, and dogs, plus tire tracks in the roads. High winds had also led to drifting, so there were eolian features as well: mini-dunes, scoops, and even some parabolic or blowout features.
Scoops form when wind has to travel around an object such as a tree, rock, or the legs of a park bench. Because the wind velocity increases on the leading edge of the feature, snow or sand get removed from in front of the obstruction.
The lake is a great place to look for eolian features, because its flat surface without plants or other obstructions provides a large windy area. Miniature dunes formed, with steep faces to windward, and shallower slopes on the leeward side. In the photo of the lake above, the wind was traveling left-to-right. It also features a pair of cross-country ski tracks!
One of the neat features was this blowout on the south (leeward) side of the lake. Last night it seemed to be a fairly parabolic feature, but today it was clearly a blowout. The grasses slowed the wind and provided a place for snow to accumulate, while the gap between grass tussocks was a high-wind area. Scouring is evident near the gap, but deposition follows not far downwind, and the parabolic shape of the features is visible.
There were a few birds out and about this morning, too! A white-breasted nuthatch was foraging in a tree above me, and several other nuthatches were fluttering around nearby.
It was a fun expedition out skiing, and I was happy to take some pictures along the way. The snowplows were busy while I was out, and several of the streets had been cleared before I got back home, so there were fewer cars to help out of the deep snow.
One year ago, I was on Heard Island. Over the course of the expedition I took more than 6000 photos. Although I took three images with the Gigapan (Big Ben, the Azorella Peninsula, and—my favorite—Windy City), I also took photos for stitching together manually using my own camera.
I have been slow in stitching these pictures together, but with the one-year anniversary of their production coming around, I decided it was time to finish one or two of them. This is the first, and I hope I’ll find time to finish more. Putting it together, I was amazed that this is still a relatively wide-angle compared to what I had available: 70 mm on a 70–200 mm lens. The detail came out well, as is evident at full-size. The glaciers, moraines, and hills are all more than a kilometer distant over the “nullarbor”, a broad, flat, volcanic-sand plain.
Toward the left half of the image are some penguins for scale. They look like king penguins, putting their height around 1 meter. I count at least 31 penguins in the entire image.
I think I spot some of the relatively rare basement limestones cropping out at the very left edge of the image, and their appearance is consistent with a dip of 25–35° to the south. A closer view (200 mm focal length) shows them more clearly.
After the Azorella Peninsula gigapan, the unit was packed up and taken back aboard the Braveheart for a trip to the southeast portion of the island. Rough north winds were expected, and with no protection afforded against those winds and swells from Atlas Cove, the ship had to move. Our expedition leader and two scientists not involved in the radio operations left camp and went to ride out the storm south of Stephenson Lagoon. At that time, it had become clear that I personally would not be able to go to Stephenson Lagoon—an area which was an extremely high priority for a gigapan image. I put fresh batteries into the gigapan mount, and sent it on its way. Sadly, in the almost four hours the team had on the shores of Stephenson Lagoon, they did not have an opportunity to take a gigapan. I’ll have to go back for that one!
Upon their return to camp, I knew since they had not attempted any gigapanning that there were fresh batteries in the unit. As the end of the expedition drew near, it was time to get the gigapan done at Windy City. Mid-morning, Carlos joined me for a trip to the outcrop (about 1.4 km each way). Although we didn’t have a bright sunny day, it was dry with a temperature around 5 °C. When we reached the outcrop and everything was set up, I turned on the gigapan mount. Nothing happened. With new batteries and a limited task, I hadn’t brought the whole kit with me. We headed back to camp, arriving in time for lunch.
Several of the rechargeable batteries I had for the gigapan had been sitting on the charger and were ready to go. I tossed those into the battery holder, put it under my arm to keep warm, and headed out with Carlos once again. At the outcrop I set up the rig again. When everything was set to go, I removed the batteries from inside my jacket, and put them into their slot. I powered it on. The LCD display brightened, but displayed an error message: Button-pusher disconnected or plugged in backwards. Cycling the power on and off didn’t fix it. Everything was as it had been before when it worked. Once again, this was a problem I was unable to deal with at the outcrop.
Back in camp, Carlos looked online for a solution while I tried to see if anything was likely to have come disconnected, although our team had been very gentle with the unit. Nothing stood out. Eventually we found online that the error is commonly caused not by a disconnected or backwards button-pusher, but by a low voltage. That made a bit more sense. Out came the volt-meter, and two sets of six AA alkaline batteries were verified to be fresh. One set went into the battery holder, the other went into a storage case. Now that it was late in the afternoon, Carlos had to report for radio duty, but Adam was willing to come with me—I needed this gigapan before the light died, as there was no guarantee that I would have the weather conditions or time to get it later.
Adam and I hurried over to the outcrop, the light already beginning to fade. I set up quickly, got the batteries out from my jacket, and set up the gigapan.
Please, light, stay with us long enough to complete this shot. Please, batteries, keep up your voltage!
It was clear from the beginning that the shot would not be truly completed. Somewhere in the middle either the light would die or the batteries would. Eventually, both did at about the same time. We quickly put everything back into the packs and headed back for camp. It was getting dark, but we arrived just in time for dinner and the start of my shift at the radio desk.
Although it was too late to be of use, I asked on Twitter what some of the other cold-weather folks had done about their gigapans. By the end of my four-hour radio shift, I had responses from @rschott and @callanbentley. Evidently this is a common problem, which is fought by insulating the gigapan unit as well as possible, and using hand/toe-warmers to add a little heat.
I think it’s time to ask Gigapan to make some design adjustments to improve the cold-weather operation of the units. It wasn’t all that cold where I was gigapanning, yet I still couldn’t get 15 minutes of operation on fresh batteries at 3–5 °C.
Windy City is located about 200 meters south of Atlas Cove, in the northwest portion of Heard Island. It comes from a fin of Drygalski Formation rocks, which are a mix of glacial sediments and volcanics, and is mostly surrounded by sand and gravel plains.
Looking closely at the outcrop, there are a number of interesting things to observe. First, there are the striking roughly-horizontal marks, which are particularly evident toward the base of the outcrop. Second, the outcrop is made of massive, fine-grained jointed rocks with few vesicles. Third, there are quite a few fractures within the rock, with discolorations along many of the cracks.
All of these observations combine into a remarkable tale of how Windy City has been formed. The massive, fine-grained, and jointed appearance leads to the conclusion that we are looking at a volcanic outcrop, rather than glacial sediments. Fracturing and discoloration have been brought on by weathering from the very wet, near-freezing environment. Finally, the wind has been a huge factor! Sand, gravel, snow, and graupel (ice pellets) have all been blasted against the side of this outcrop, primarily from the west (at right). On Heard Island, a 9 m/s wind is typical, with maximum recorded gusts exceeding 50 m/s on three days during the 1948-1954 period. The high winds sandblast the outcrop, leading to the horizontal striations.
Here are a few wider-angle shots for context, and with better light than I ended up with for the gigapan.
I also managed a close-up shot of one of the pieces of float.
 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.
The Azorella Peninsula is on the northern edge of the main part of Heard Island, east of the Laurens Peninsula. It forms the eastern boundary of Atlas Cove (Laurens Peninsula forms the western boundary; see map below). At the west end of the Azorella Peninsula’s southern margin is the heritage zone around the ANARE campsite, two water-tank shelters, a green “apple” shelter, and the area where our expedition made camp. That many of the camps are all in the same area is no accident: Atlas Cove is probably the best harbor on the island (though still not sheltered from a northerly swell), there is a convenient beach for boat landings, and a small step up of elevation from the lava flows of the Azorella Peninsula provides higher ground than the sometimes-inundated Nullarbor.
Getting a gigapan here was not as straightforward as I had hoped. Although there were plenty of pahoehoe flow tops, cracks where a flow had deflated and collapsed in on itself, and other lava flow features, few of them were of a scale and in a location which enabled them to be nicely gigapanned with the tripod I had. With another 3–5 m of elevation, the gigapan would be spectacular.
As it was, there were some additional features besides the lava flows which I wanted to include. For one, the landscape has significant erosional processes happening, and there are sandy areas which get washed when it rains. Even more than the rain, though, the wind creates eolian features. Many of the small rocks have a little dune in their lee, and often the Kerguelen cabbage and Azorella moss grow on the leeward side of rock barriers as well. Some of this organization is visible in the gigapan.
At the top right of the Gigapan image, and lost to the fog and overexposure of the image, is a strongly layered prominence: Corinth Head. Although I would have liked to go see this outcrop up close, our permit did not allow that—the area is a major nesting site for burrowing seabirds, and in places there are lava tubes with thin ceilings which may give way underfoot.
Where the Azorella Peninsula lava flow field meets the Nullarbor, there was a little flow which caught my eye. There, one flow clearly traveled through an older channel or tube. Weathering has removed some of the older flow, giving a cross-sectional view of the dark vesicular rock.
Some lava tubes showed obvious signs of deflation or lava tube collapse. The one seen below had eolian features nearby, and the Kerguelen cabbage and Azorella moss can be seen growing on the leeward side of the rocks. An elephant seal is also present.
Finally, here is another example of a collapsed lava tube, which shows off a cross-section of the top of the lava tube as well as some pahoehoe flow tops.
This post is the first in a series of three on the gigapans I took on Heard Island. (Part 2, Part 3)
My first gigapan on Heard Island, this one of Big Ben, came unexpectedly. As I was out hiking one afternoon, my hiking partner, Arliss, noticed that we had a clear view of the summit of Big Ben. Clearings like this can be relatively short and infrequent, so we took a few pictures immediately. We headed back to base camp just east of Atlas Cove, arriving under an hour before sunset. The mountain was still visible, so I moved quickly to set everything up and get the gigapan taken before the light faded.
From camp, Big Ben is situated to the southeast, rising up beyond the flat sandy plain of the nullarbor. In this view, the moraines and glaciers begin about 2 km from the camera. To the right of the image is the eastern slope of Mt. Drygalski. The edge of the Azorella Peninsula lava flow is in the bottom left corner.
Glacial features dominate the landscape, including a prominent moraine now covered in vegetation (lower right). Coming toward the camera are the Schmidt and Baudissin glaciers. I think this view covers from the Allison and Vahsel glaciers (at right) to the Ealey glacier (at left).
On the Nullarbor, there are a few king penguins and elephant seals, primarily to the left of center.
Big Ben itself has a range of rock types, including basanites, alkali basalts, and trachybasalts, overlying limestones and volcanic/glacial deposits.[1-4]
 Barling, J.; Goldstein, S. L. (1990) Extreme isotopic variations in Heard Island lavas and the nature of mantle reservoirs. Nature 348:59–62, doi 10.1038/348059a0.
 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.
 Stephenson, J.; Barling, J.; Wheller, G.; Clarke, I. “The geology and volcanic geomorphology of Heard Island”, in Heard Island: Southern Ocean Sentinel (Eds K. Green and E. Woehler) Surrey Beatey & Sons, 2006, p. 10–27.
A few days have gone by, and they have been busy! We’ve been fortunate in that when the weather has been poor, the radio propagation has been good. A fair bit of windy, drizzly weather has been present this week, and we have managed to make more than 50,000 contacts with stations all around the world.
Unfortunately, the weather has meant I haven’t had the opportunity to take more gigapans. I am prepared for wet weather, and this morning I went a few hundred meters across the lake which had formed in front of camp (ankle deep) to Wharf Point, the point inside Atlas Cove. There on the cobbles lining the beach I did a stationary count of the birds in the hummocks nearby, on the water, and along the beach. It took about 10 minutes, and I managed to get the list recorded in a weatherproof notebook for upload later. Getting out of the tent and away from things for a while was a welcome change.
One thing which has been abundantly clear on this expedition is that if you want to do something that depends on the weather, be prepared to do it. The weather can shift very rapidly (especially if it’s permissive weather), so “I’ll just wait until later” often won’t cut it. If you see Big Ben and want a photograph of it, get your camera and shoot. There may not be another chance. This evening I didn’t immediately take a picture when there was a clear, starry sky. I at least saw the starry sky, but did not get the photograph. With only a bit more than a week to go, I hope I can still get that picture.
In the afternoon a few days ago, the weather cleared enough to get a view of Mawson Peak atop Big Ben. I quickly grabbed the camera, put on the telephoto lens, and got a few pictures of the summit. Indeed, there was a small plume indicating (at minimum) hydrothermal activity or venting, but possibly a small active lava flow.
Heard Island’s mood changes with the weather, and the effect that has on the landscape can be quite striking. The picture at the top of this post and the one immediately below are taken in pretty similar places looking in similar directions. What a difference the weather makes!
Finally, the king penguins make tracks as they walk around on the wet sandy ground.
Heard Island is a pretty magical and dramatic place. I’ve been very busy with my IT duties, radio duties, and general camp upkeep. However, I’ve managed to take a few pictures in spare moments, and the highlights are posted here.
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.
A good camera is handy to have in the field. You can capture in a picture more details than you can sketch in a reasonable time. Additionally, if you sketch like I do, the picture will be far more accurate in its recording of what you are seeing. For instance, the above photo shows Columns of the Giants, from well up into the Sierra Nevada range in California. From this picture, you could estimate cliff height, the height of the columns (at the base of the cliff), the typical size of the columns, and so forth.
One or two lenses are generally sufficient: a wide-angle lens to get big features (choose this if there can be only one), and a macro lens for close-ups.
When taking pictures, it is important to include a scale of some sort. It can be a finger, shoe, pen, hammer, person, truck, whatever. Just make sure there is some context for the size of the image. I was reassured when, in my quest for a scale-less picture for last week’s post, I had difficulty finding one. For many places, you might get by if you forget. However, on Heard Island, the barren and alien landscape will not be so forgiving.