Rarely Seen Sub-Antarctic Volcano Erupts

Scientists catch a rare sight of an erupting volcano on a remote sub-Antarctic island. Continue reading →

A rarely seen volcanic eruption on a sub-Antarctic island has been captured by a team of scientists sailing near the remote area.

Heard Island, about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) southwest of Australia and just 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of the coast of Antarctica, is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) long and is dominated by an active volcano known as Big Ben. Volcanic activity at the spot has been known since 1881, and satellites recorded eruptions there in the 1990s and 2000s. However, because the island is remote and rarely visited, eye-witness accounts of such eruptions are few and far between.

Antarctica: A Travelers Guide

Researchers and crew on board the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) ship Investigator witnessed the eruption during a University of Tasmania-led expedition to investigate whether iron from underwater volcanoes in the region exerts control on the dynamics of phytoplankton blooms and fertilization of the Southern Ocean.

click to play video

"We saw vapor being emitted from the top of the volcano and we saw lava flows coming down the flank of Big Ben," Professor Mike Coffin of the University of Tasmania's Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, the voyage's chief scientist, said. "This was a very exciting observation. There are very few ships that come to this part of the world and in fact the last geological expedition that landed on Heard Island was in 1987."

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Although remote, Big Ben is not the most southerly active volcano in the world. That honor goes to Mt. Erebus, on Antarctica's Ross Island, which was discovered on January 28 1841, by an expedition led by Sir James Clark Ross.

The volcano was erupting as the expedition's ships approached, and the juxtaposition of fire and ice moved the ship's surgeon, Joseph Hooker, to observe that, "this was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined ... that it really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us, at the consideration of our comparative insignificance and helplessness."

Big Ben, the volcano on remote Heard Island, emits vapor and poison gas during an eruption.

Step right up, folks, and witness Antarctica, the amazing shrinking continent. This polar desert may be the coldest, windiest continent on the planet, but Antarctica has everything the modern adventurer would want, from exotic wildlife to awe-inspiring landscapes to advanced research facilities and more. No amount of showmanship can express the value of the continent of Antarctica more than glimpses of what the polar landscape has to offer the curious traveler. But Antarctica is also under threat like never before in human history. So now is the time to explore the planet's coldest continent before it's too late.

VIDEO: Who Controls Antarctica

One of the first stops on any visit to Antarctica should be to see the animals who have basically become a sort of mascot for the continent, the always dapper penguins. While the majestic emperor penguin may be the most famous species in the southern continent, they aren't the only penguins in Antarctica or even the most populous. The Antarctic Circle also hosts four other varieties of penguins, including Adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins and macaroni penguins. These birds total in the tens of millions when all the species are combined, but their ranks have been thinned right along with the ice as climate change takes its toll. The shrinking continent threatens both their breeding grounds and food supply, particularly for emperor, Adélie and chinstrap penguins, studies have found.

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Penguins aren't the only animals that call Antarctica home. Fish, albatross, seals and other animals share the landscape and can be seen on a typical Antarctic voyage. One of the most easily spotted animals are the whales that swim in the Antarctic Ocean. Many species can be found around the southern continent, including blue whales, killer whales, humpbacks, sperm whales and more. In fact, earlier this year, researchers reported

the discovery of a new whale species

after detecting its unique song pattern. As with penguins, climate change has had an impact on whales for the worse, affecting their migration patterns and food supply.

Sperm Whale Caught on Camera in Rare Encounter

Although not as famous as its northern cousin, aurora australis, the Southern Lights, bathe the Antarctic skies in an brilliant green glow. The light show can be credited to solar particles entering Earth's atmosphere. The Southern Lights (pictured over the National Science Foundation's South Pole Station) are less accessible than the Northern Lights, which can be seen over many populated areas. In the south, however, there is little land over which the aurora is viewable. The Southern Lights are also only viewable between March and September, when the days are dark most or all of the time depending on the month. Cruises only travel to Antarctica during the summer months, however, between November and March.

VIDEO: Massive Northern and Southern Lights Explained

More than 100 years ago, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott led the ill-fated British Antarctic, also known as Terra Nova, expedition. The mission cost him his life but cemented his legacy as a hero. Built in 1911 by crew members of Scott's expedition, the Terra Nova hut is located on Cape Evans on the west side of Ross Island. Measuring 50 feet long (15 meters) by 25 (7.6 meters) wide, the hut was constructed as a base from which Scott would set upon the expedition to the South Pole and could house up to 33 men. More than 8,000 artifacts are preserved in the hut, including furniture, various food items, scientific instruments, photographs and a darkroom.

Forgotten Discoveries of Scott's Antarctica

Scott's hut isn't the only historic home on the Antarctic site-seeing tour. Ernest Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, which also conveniently is adjacent to a colony of Adélie penguins, still stands more than 100 years after it was built. Constructed during Shackleton's second expedition to Antarctica between 1907 and 1909, in addition to the various artifacts one might expect an early 20th-century polar explorer to have handy, the historic site also held a cache of 25 cases of whiskey, 12 cases of brandy and six of port.

According to the U.S. Antarctic Program

, the explorers relied on strong spirits to cope with the long insomnia-inducing days and bone-chilling nights.

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Located at the southern tip of Ross Island, McMurdo Station has been the primary Antarctic research facility for the United States since its completion in 1956. The site hosts all the facilities needed for a remote research community, including but not limited to dormitories, administrative buildings, a fire station, a power plant, a water treatment plant, stores, clubs, warehouses, a science support center, a harbor, landing strips, a runway and a helicopter pad. McMurdo supports research programs stretching over a variety of disciplines including astrophysics, glaciology, integrated system science, ocean and atmospheric sciences, according to the U.S. Antarctic program,

which also hosts a live view of the research station online

.

Antarctic Sea Ice May Force Research Stations to Move

Don't let the name fool you. Deception Island harbors an honest-to-goodness tourist attraction. In addition to the natural beauty of the area, the site offers a natural hot spring in which travelers can take a soak. For visitors looking to take a trip through time, the island also houses the rusting remnants of a former whale oil outpost, abandoned in the early 1930s when whale oil prices plummeted, as well as is a few buildings that made up a British base, left desolate in the 1970s. Above, an American researcher warms his hands on a seaside fumarole in this photo taken in 1962. Why does Deception Island seem to welcome visitors but discourage settlement? The island is the site of an active volcano, which explains why the only people willing to attempt an extended stay these days are scientists.

DNews Video: Meet the Guy Who Went Into a Volcano

When not blocked by icebergs, rendering it impassable, Lemaire Channel offers visitors a postcard-perfect view of Antarctica. Lemaire Channel is roughly 7 miles (11 kilometers) long and runs between Booth Island and the Antarctic peninsula. Ships traveling the channel will be greeted by snow-capped mountains on both sides. The channel also happens to be a prime spot for whale-watching, with humpbacks or killer whales occasionally following a ship's wake.

Drifting Iceberg Spins Out Ocean Tunes

No trip to Antarctica would be complete without a visit to the South Pole. Fortunately for the modern traveler, there's no need to travel by foot to get there. The most common means of seeing the South Pole is in a helicopter. In addition to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station seen in the Southern Lights slide, the South Pole also carries all of the flags of the nations that lay claim to some slice of Antarctica. The site also contains the Ceremonial South Pole, a metallic sphere on top of a red and white striped pole. Above, the American flag is repositioned every year on New Year's Day to account for the movement of ice.

DNews Video: What Will Happen When the North and South Poles Flip?