Heard and McDonald Islands


Brief Description

Heard Island and McDonald Islands are located in the Southern Ocean, approximately 1,700 km from the Antarctic continent and 4,100 km south-west of Perth. As the only volcanically active subantarctic islands they ‘open a window into the earth’, thus providing the opportunity to observe ongoing geomorphic processes and glacial dynamics. The distinctive conservation value of Heard and McDonald – one of the world’s rare pristine island ecosystems – lies in the complete absence of alien plants and animals, as well as human impact.

Heard and McDonald Islands © Eddie More pictures …

Justification for Inscription

The Committee inscribed this property under criteria (viii) and (ix). It noted that this site is the only volcanically active sub-Antarctic island and illustrates ongoing geomorphic processes and glacial dynamics in the coastal and submarine environment and sub-Antarctic flora and fauna, with no record of alien species. The Committee repeated its request by the sixteenth session for further documentation on the marine resources of the site.

Long Description

The Australian external territory of Heard and McDonald Islands lies in a remote and stormy part of the globe, near the meeting-point of Antarctic and temperate ocean waters in the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean about 1,500 km north of Antarctica and over 4,000 km south-west of Australia. The islands were unknown to humanity until the 19th century. As the only volcanically active subantarctic islands they ‘open a window into the Earth’, thus providing the opportunity to observe ongoing geomorphic processes and glacial dynamics. The distinctive conservation value of Heard and McDonald – one of the world’s rare pristine island ecosystems – lies in the complete absence of alien plants and animals.

Heard Island is the principal island of the property. Mawson Peak, at 2,745 m, is the summit of Big Ben, an active, towering volcano that dominates the group, with a thick mantle of snow and glacial ice contrasting black volcanic rocks in a startling array of forms and shapes. The last recorded major eruption on Big Ben was in 1992, but continuous activity is clearly evident from other observations of minor steam and smoke emissions. The driving westerly winds above the Southern Ocean in these latitudes create unique weather patterns when they come up against the enormous bulk of Big Ben, including spectacular cloud formations around the summit and unbelievably rapid changes in winds, cloud cover and precipitation.

McDonald Island, 43.5 km due west of Heard Island, is the major island in the McDonald Islands group, which also includes Flat Island and Meyer Rock.

The Island, also volcanic in origin and, like Heard Island, is an undisturbed habitat for subantarctic plants and animals and consists of two distinct parts joined by a narrow central isthmus.

Through the years the islands are home to a wide array of animals; seals, flying birds and penguins, including 2 million pairs of macaroni penguin representing 16% of the world population. The other extraordinary landforms on the islands include: the flutes of Cape Pillar on McDonald Island and the lonely pinnacle of Meyer Rock; the caves and other lava formations of the northern Heard Island peninsulas; the smoking caldera of Mawson Peak above the palaeocaldera of Big Ben; the western sea cliffs of McDonald Island; the shifting sands of the Nullarbor Plain; and the extensive, dynamically changing Spit.

It is the only subantarctic island group to contain no known species introduced directly by man, which makes it invaluable for having, within one site, an intact set of interrelated ecosystems; terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine, in which the ongoing evolution of plants and animals occur in a natural state.

The remains of sealing gangs which occupied Heard following the first landing in 1855 until 1929 can be found on the island.

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

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