Remote Islands, part III: Îles Kerguelen and Heard Island


At 10 o’clock the Captain was walking on deck and saw what he supposed to be an immense iceberg. … the atmosphere was hazy, and then a heavy snow squall came up which shut it out entirely from our view. Not long after the sun shone again, and I went up again and with the glass, tried to get an outline of it to sketch its form. The sun seemed so dazzling on the water, and the tops of the apparent icebergs covered with snow; the outline was very indistinct. We were all the time nearing the object and on looking again the Captain pronounced it to be land. The Island is not laid down on the chart, neither is it in the Epitome, so we are perhaps the discoverers, … I think it must be a twin to Desolation Island, it is certainly a frigid looking place.

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

The text above was the journal entry of Isabel Heard, wife of the American Captain John Heard, on 25 November 1853. The couple was en route from Boston, Massachusetts to Melbourne, Australia (a long time to spend in a boat) and the land they spotted became known as Heard Island. It should be noted that “Desolation Island” refers to Îles Kerguelen, which has its own unique story of discovery.

Kerguelen Island was discovered in 1772 by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec, a French navigator commissioned by King Louis XV to discover the unknown continent in the Southern Hemisphere that he believed to be necessary to balance the globe. (Look at a globe or map of the world and notice that most of the land area is in the Northern Hemisphere.) Kerguelen himself never set foot on the island, but he told his king the island was inhabited and full of forests, fruits and untold riches. He called it “La France Australe” (Southern France). Captain Cook actually did land on the island a few years later and named it Desolation Island because it had none of that stuff, and King Louis XV imprisoned Kerguelen after his lie was discovered. Oops.

Îles Kerguelen, made up of the main island (Kerguelen to us, La Grande Terre to the French) and the many small surrounding islands are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises or TAAF). Heard Island is part of the Australian territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI).

These islands are in the “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties”, the region of the Southern Ocean (southern Indian Ocean in this case) between 40 °S and 60 °S latitude. Get out your globe or world map once again and notice that there is very little land in this latitude range. This region is where strong, persistent westerly winds circle the globe. With no land in the way, there isn’t much to disturb this flow. The high winds almost always from the same direction create huge waves of 10 m (33 ft) or more. (Now imagine being John or Isabel Heard. Well, actually, if you suffer from sea-sickness you probably shouldn’t imagine it.) The cold winds flow over the relatively warmer waters of the ocean, forming persistent cloudiness. If you zoom in on the image above (click on the image, then on the “1893×1452” link below the banner for full resolution) you can see quite a bit of structure in the resulting “cloud streets“.

The persistent cloudiness makes Kerguelen and Heard Island a rare sight from any satellite. We can see them here because the flow is stable and the islands are producing the equivalent of a “rain shadow” on the clouds. (It’s tempting to call it a “cloud shadow” but, since clouds actually do cast shadows, it would just confuse people.) If we zoom in on Kerguelen, this shows up more clearly:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

Notice how all the clouds are piling up on the west (windward) side of Kerguelen, where the highest mountains, are located. (These mountains are covered with snow and glaciers, as the cyan color indicates.) Could that be the equivalent of a bow shock near 68 °E longitude where there is an apparent crack in the clouds? On the leeward side of the island, downwind of the mountains, the air is descending, which prevents clouds from forming. Kerguelen created a hole in the clouds by disrupting the flow.

Now, let’s zoom in on Heard Island:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

In addition to creating a hole in the clouds, Heard Island is creating all sorts of waves in the atmosphere. The ones you probably noticed first look like the wake created by a boat (and have the same basic cause). But, why do they start well out ahead of the island where the yellow arrow is pointing? Because those first waves are actually caused by the McDonald Islands (discovered by Capt. William McDonald in 1854). Even though the highest point on McDonald Island is only 186 m above mean sea level (610 ft), it’s enough to disrupt the flow.

The highest point on Heard Island is Mawson Peak at 2745 m (9006 ft), which is actually the highest elevation in Australia. It is part of Big Ben, an active volcano that last erupted in 2008. This peak is creating a series of lenticular clouds in the above image. A patch of cirrus clouds also exists downwind of Heard Island (the more cyan colored clouds), although it is not clear if these clouds were formed by the waves caused by Heard Island.

If you’re interested in visiting either of these islands, here are some other interesting facts: Kerguelen has a year-round population of ~100, almost all scientists. It has a permanent weather station and office maintained by Météo-France (France’s version of the National Weather Service), and the French version of NASA (CNES) has a station for launching rockets and monitoring satellites. Heard Island has no permanent residents. Every few years a scientific expedition sets out for the island to study the geology, biology, weather and climate of the island. The next one is planned for 2014 and is being called an “open source expedition”. There may still be time to join in if you’re looking for an adventure!

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