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Report on Sturge Island (Antarctica) — May 2001

Sturge Island

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 26, no. 5 (May 2001)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Sturge Island (Antarctica) Elongate cloud on 12 June possibly a result of volcanic emissions

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2001. Report on Sturge Island (Antarctica) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 26:5. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN200105-390012

Sturge Island


67.4°S, 164.83°E; summit elev. 1167 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

An unusual cloud formation was spotted on 12 June satellite imagery from the Balleny Islands region by Petty Officer Eugenia Dowling, of the U.S. National Ice Center, while performing a weekly analysis of Ross Sea imagery. In addition to AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer), the National Ice Center uses OLS (Optical Line Scan) Imagery from a Defense Meteorological Satellite (visible/IR, 0.55 km resolution). The cloud was seen in OLS imagery and brought to the attention of Paul Seymour, who then forwarded it for further evaluation to Ralph Meiggs, Applied Technology Branch Chief and part of the NOAA Operational Significant Event Imagery team. From there it came to the attention of the Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC), who consulted with volcanologists and other international meteorologists familiar with identifying volcanic plumes from satellite data.

Preliminary interpretations based on satellite data were made by analysts in the United States (NOAA/Washington VAAC), Australia (Bureau of Meteorology/Darwin VAAC), and New Zealand (MetService NZ/Wellington VAAC). More detailed research and analysis was provided by Fred Prata of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Atmospheric Research Division. Thoughtful comments were also provided by Steve Pendelbury and Neil Adams of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The feature was first seen on AVHRR imagery from 1352 UTC on 12 June 2001. It appeared to be almost detached from the island on AVHRR images at 1631 and 1652, but was still visible emanating from the island on MODIS imagery at 2245.

Preliminary interpretations from Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers. Based on analysis of NOAA-14, -15, and -16 AVHRR imagery by the Washington VAAC, the plume reached a size of ~20 x 200 km and an altitude of ~1,300 m (later analysis, below, showed the plume to be much higher); temperatures were estimated to be about -53°C (220 K). Channel differencing revealed no ash content, which suggests that the cloud was mainly steam. A short video was created from satellite imagery showing the progression of the plume.

During a discussion with Andrew Tupper (Darwin VAAC), Lance Cowled, a senior meteorologist in the Tasmania/Antarctic office of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, noted that at first sight it looked like a banner cloud shed by the island that developed with the onset of cirrus overcast thickening, but that it may have been caused by an interaction between the moisture field and any gas being emitted. The summit of Sturge Island has a lower elevation (1,167 m) than both nearby Young Island (1,340 m) and Buckle Island (1,239 m). With this in mind, Tupper stated that the chance of a banner cloud forming only on Sturge without some volcanic influence was less likely, but difficult to know without more topographical knowledge of the islands.

James Travers, Operations Manager for the Aviation Services Division of the MetService NZ and Wellington VAAC, stated that, based on his experience, the feature was more likely to be associated with volcanic activity rather than with an orographically induced cloud.

Analysis by Australian CSIRO Atmospheric Research. Fred Prata (CSIRO Atmospheric Research) obtained MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer), ATSR-2 (Along Track Scanning Radiometer), and AVHRR-2 LAC (Local Area Coverage) data for this mysterious plume seen on AVHRR GAC (Global Area Coverage) data. His analysis and interpretation follows. "My first impression was that it was volcanic in origin. However, the AVHRR LAC, MODIS and ATSR-2 data do not show an ash signature when processed using a technique that usually discriminates ash (figure 1). So, either there was no ash or it's not volcanic. The case for it being volcanic with no ash is sustainable as the MODIS 7.3 µm channel does give an indication of SO2, but this signal is weaker than normal (figure 2). It is also possible that the ash is there but the signal is concealed by ice coating the ash. We have seen a few instances of this in the past. The plume could also be mostly steam (and then ice or liquid water drops once in the atmosphere). The case for it not being volcanic relies on the observation that there were winds streaming over these islands which spawned a cloud (looking like a banner cloud) in the lee of Sturge Island. You can easily convince yourself that this is possible when looking at the NOAA animation. I have examined MODIS 250-m data (at different times of year) and found that when Sturge forms these clouds the other islands also form clouds (Buckle and Young) and more often the clouds are lee waves rather than banner clouds.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 1. Satellite image of the Sturge Island plume from AVHRR LAC data acquired on 12 June 2001 at 1652 UTC showing the extent of the plume. The temperature difference image of the 11 µm channel - 12 µm channel (T4-T5) is usually negative for 'ash' plumes. This positive difference suggests that there is no ash content, or an undetectable amount. These data are at the edge of the satellite reception capability, resulting in many missing or bad lines. Courtesy of F. Prata, CSIRO.
Figure (see Caption) Figure 2. Satellite image of the Sturge Island plume showing MODIS 1-km data acquired on 12 June 2001 at 2245 UTC. This image of temperature difference between the 6.7 and 7.3 µm channels is an SO2 sensitive combination, giving some indication of SO2, but the interpretation is not clear in this case. Young and Buckle islands, to the NW, exhibit no plume. Courtesy of F. Prata, CSIRO.

"Looking at AVHRR temperatures I find that the thickest part of the plume (near the island) is at around 213 K (12 µm) and the surrounding scene temperatures are 250 K or higher. This puts the cloud top at around 6 km assuming a lapse rate of 6.5 K per km and the cloud is opaque (which it isn't quite). The cloud also extends a long way downwind (I calculate that it is visible for 300 km from Sturge) and there is no such cloud coming off Young or Buckle. Finally, looking at the AVHRR LAC it is apparent that there are regions in the plume that are more opaque - as if there were discrete pulses, possibly from several eruptions (figure 3). So my conclusion is that it is more likely to be an eruption cloud than a banner cloud, but there is a degree of doubt."

Figure (see Caption) Figure 3. Satellite image of the Sturge Island plume showing AVHRR LAC data acquired on 12 June 2001 at 1352 UTC. The image is an 11 µm brightness temperature (K) image with black as cold and white as warm, annotated to show the possible "puffs" or pulses of volcanic activity. Courtesy of F. Prata, CSIRO.

Further comments by Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Steve Pendelbury, a Supervisory Meteorologist in the Bureau of Meteorology and his colleague Neil Adams (Senior Meteorologist) identified the plume as a banner cloud, and noted that the "pulses" seen in AVHRR imagery seemed like lee wave activity. The plume was similar to one recorded on AVHRR imagery over Heard Island where orographic banner was suspected. Orographic influence is also suggested because the upwind part of the plume mirrors the breadth of the island. A reason for the plume only being off this island is the differences in island height and perhaps variations in the static stability with height. They noted that the estimated height of the plume top (6 km by Fred Prata's estimation) would mean that ejected volcanic material, albeit even steam, would have had to rise approximately 5 km; this might be difficult in the intrinsically stable atmosphere of high southern latitude waters, but orographic clouds can form that high via vertically propagating waves. Another possibility, assuming that the moisture could have risen to 6 km, is that volcanic venting provided moisture needed to produce a cloud in otherwise invisible lee waves that may be present downwind of all three islands. They agreed that the data are inconclusive.

AVHRR band 4 mosaics from the Casey HRPT ground station, reduced to 4 km resolution, showed a good banner cloud along with a wake cloud evident off Young Island, the northern island in the Balleny Island chain, at 0830 UTC on 5 July image. Another image at 2130 UTC still has evidence of a wake cloud but the banner cloud is no longer visible.

Seismicity. No earthquakes recorded within 100 km of the Balleny Islands during 6-20 June 2001 were present in the USGS National Earthquake Information Center's database as of 20 June.

Summary of interpretations. Basic observations about this cloud/plume are as follows: It is unlikely that this plume contained ash, but there may have been some SO2 content. This plume clearly originated above Sturge Island, but not above the two other Balleny Islands with higher elevations. The cloud was not consistent throughout the period it was observed, exhibiting variable opacity. Explanations can be constructed to explain all of these features that are based on orographic influences, volcanic emissions, or some combination of the two. Local static stability might have assisted cloud formation above this lower-elevation island, but not above the nearby higher islands. Water vapor provided by volcanic emissions may also have resulted in cloud formation, either directly or orographically. Likewise, the variable opacity of the cloud could be caused by pulses of emissions or orographic lee waves. Without independent evidence of volcanism, the satellite imagery is not conclusive.

Background. A 160-km-long chain of volcanic islands forms the Balleny Islands just off the coast of Antarctica's Victoria Land. The islands are located at the southern end of a submarine ridge system that extends north to New Zealand, but is offset by the Indian-Antarctic ridge system. No detailed geologic studies have been conducted in the inaccessible Balleny Islands.

Sturge is the largest and southernmost of the Balleny Islands. The 44-km-long island is completely mantled by an icecap and has a prominent summit, Russel Peak, at the northern end. "Volcanic activity" was reported on a U.S. Navy chart, but no indications of present or past activity were noted in 1959 (Catalog of Active Volcanoes of the World).

Buckle Island is in the center of the Balleny Islands. The elongated, 21-km-long island is capped by a gently sloping icecap that descends steeply to the sea between rocky cliffs. Dark eruption columns were reported during 1839 and 1899.

Young Island is the northernmost and second largest of the Balleny Islands. Captain Balleny, the discoverer of the islands, reported "smoke" issuing from Freeman Peak on Young Island on 12 February 1839. The island has a broad plateau-like summit reaching 1,340 m and is almost completely mantled by ice.

Geological Summary. Sturge is the largest and southernmost of the Balleny Islands, which are located just off the coast of Antarctica's Victoria Land. The 44-km-long island is completely mantled by an icecap and has a prominent summit, Russel Peak, at the northern end. "Volcanic activity" was reported on a U.S. Navy chart, but no indications of present or past activity were noted in 1959 (Catalog of Active Volcanoes of the World). No detailed geologic studies have been conducted in the inaccessible Balleny Islands.

Information Contacts: Grace Swanson, Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC), Satellite Analysis Branch, NOAA/NESDIS/E/SP23, NOAA Science Center Room 401, Camp Springs, MD 20746, USA (URL: http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/); Fred Prata, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, PB 1 Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia (URL: https://www.cmar.csiro.au/); Steve Pendelbury and Lance Cowled, Weather Services, Bureau of Meteorology, GPO Box 727G, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia; Neil Adams, Antarctic Co-operative Research Centre and Bureau of Meteorology, PO Box 421, Kent Town, SA 5071, Australia; Andrew Tupper, Darwin VAAC, Northern Territory Regional Office, Bureau of Meteorology, PO Box 40050, Casuarina, NT 0811, Australia (URL: http://www.bom.gov.au/info/vaac/); National Ice Center, Federal Building 4, 4251 Suitland Road, Washington, DC 20395 USA (URL: http://www.natice.noaa.gov/); National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), US Geological Survey, Mail Stop 967, Federal Center Box 25046, Denver, CO 80225, USA (URL: http://earthquakes.usgs.gov/).