Friday, October 26, 2012

PENGUIN PANIC: Is this volcano on Heard Island exploding?

  • Heard Island is a tiny speck of Australian territory near Antarctica
  • NASA says there are "signs of an eruption on Heard Island"
  • There is no one there, except for the penguins
Heard Island
Although not definitive, this NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon suggests an ongoing eruption. The dark summit crater is partially snow-free and the darker area could be lava flow within.
RELAX. Stay calm. Everything's almost certainly going to be OK. Unless you're a penguin. If you're a penguin, it may just pay to panic like hell. 

A volcano on Heard Island, a tiny uninhabited speck of Australian territory near Antarctica, may just be erupting.

It also may not be erupting. Nobody really knows. We contacted the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart this afternoon, and they didn’t know.

So why would we think that a massive volcano could this minute be spewing poisonous fumes across pristine penguin colonies?

One word: NASA.

The US government space agency has a website called NASA Visible Earth, which publishes pictures taken by a range of satellites.

On October 23, after cobbling together a series of images dating back to October 13, NASA declared there were “signs of an eruption on Heard Island”.

It then stated:

“Although not definitive, this natural-color satellite image also suggests an ongoing eruption. The dark summit crater - much darker than Mawson [Peak]’s shaded southwestern face - is at least partially snow-free.

“There is also a faint hint of an even darker area - perhaps a lava flow - within. Shortwave infrared data shows hot surfaces within the crater, indicating the presence of lava in or just beneath the crater. Heavy cloud cover camouflaged what may have been a plume that erupted less than an hour after the image above was captured.”

Now you might think someone would have worked out by now whether there was in fact an eruption and whether that eruption is still happening. Well, not necessarily.

Not only is Heard Island uninhabited, but its unremarkable fauna and flora mean that it is often years between scientific visits.

No one is there, almost nobody is nearby, and pretty much no one cares whether one of the only two active volcanoes in Australian territory is blowing its top.

Except, of course, the penguins, who as you read this may well be lava-surfing using seals as surfboards.

Or not.


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