oceanic islands

Kerguelen: France’s Desolate Islands

One of the most intriguing — and obscure — parts of France’s far-flung territorial domain is the Kerguelen Archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean, also known as the Desolation Islands. Dominated by Grande Terre Island, Kerguelen is one of the world’s largest remote oceanic landmasses; covering 2,786 square miles (7,215 km. sq.), it is roughly five times the size of Hawaii’s Oahu. Located far from the equator (at 49 degrees S.), the Desolation Islands are noted for their raw and windy weather. But if Kerguelen is always chilly, its maritime climate precludes real cold. Average monthly temperatures range from 46° F (7.9° C) in January to 36° F (2.3° C) in July.

Isolation and harsh climate have generated some ecological curiosities. Kerguelen’s butterflies, like its other insect species, have no wings; winds are so strong and persistent that flying insects would simply be blown out to sea. Like most oceanic islands, Kerguelen has no native land mammals. It does, however, support a number in introduced species, including rabbits, reindeer, rats, and feral house cats. The rabbits have proved destructive to the local vegetation, nearly wiping out the Azorerla “cushion plants” that once blanketed the lowlands, forming pillow-like structures up to a meter thick that were almost impossible to cross on foot. The Kerguelen cabbage, which once helped protect Antarctic mariners from scurvy, is also much reduced. Abundant lichens and mosses help support the islands’ estimated 4,000 reindeer, but they too are being over-grazed. French authorities have introduced an endangered sheep to one of the archipelago’s islands, but reproduction has been limited by the animals’ inability to adjust to the inversion of the seasons; they bear their young as winter approaches.

Kerguelen’s marine ecosystems are rich in wildlife, owing in part to the area’s giant brown kelp. Kelp forests surrounding the islands are thick enough to impede navigation, clogging ship propellers. Great rafts of kelp often wash ashore after storms, transferring nutrients from the marine to the terrestrial ecosystem. Whalers and sealers were formerly active in the area, almost wiping out local seal populations. Marine mammals are now protected, and their numbers have rebounded.

Kerguelen has no permanent human inhabitants, but it is staffed year-round. France maintains several research stations, one of which is devoted to satellite and rocket tracking. The archipelago’s winter population of around 70 swells to an average of 110 in the summer. People cluster around the “settlement” of Port-aux-Francais, which contains a chapel, hospital, library, gymnasium, and pub. The chapel is appropriately named Notre-Dame des Vents (“Our lady of the Winds”).

The Desolation Islands are a remnant of a long-lost continent that was once about a third the size of Australia. From roughly a hundred million years ago until 20 million years ago, most of the now largely submerged Kerguelen Plateau remained above sea level. The existence of such a sunken continent has provoked some imaginative speculation. One expansive website argues that several lines of “pseudo-primates” evolved into highly intelligent species that constructed elaborate civilizations on Kerguelen and went on to intervene in organic evolution on other continents. Even reputable sources have let their enthusiasm lead them astray. A 1999 BBC article entitled “‘Lost Continent’ Revealed” contended that “fifty million years ago, [Kerguelen] may have been covered in lush ferns, moist with tropical humidity. Small dinosaurs would have hidden in the undergrowth stalking their prey.” That would certainly be surprising, since dinosaurs were wiped out across the globe some 15 million years earlier, when a massive asteroid collided with the earth.

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No Island No Claim: The Cases of Tuvalu and Nauru

In 2009, the Island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico disappeared from site. Now, it will disappear on maps, as well.

Mexico was using Bermeja to leverage a claim on oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico, after all, their state maps showed the Island as an unquestionable part of their territory. The problem was, when a crew went out to examine the Bermeja, it could not be found.

Another crew was sent out to investigate the claim, alas, nothing to be found. The disbelief even led to conspiracy theories of the CIA destroying the island (see: Bikini Atoll). The United States gave a prompt and cutting response to Mexico, “No Island, No Claim,” the norm in international law.

This case was followed up in the last week by news that New Moore Island, or S. Talpatti, in the Bay of Bengal, a former maritime dispute point between India and Bangladesh, had ceased to be.

Many of the UN’s tiniest and lowest lying states, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Maldives, for example are in jeopardy of becoming submerged in the next decade, due to rising ocean levels.

The international community has been somewhat sympathetic to these soon to be submerged countries, with New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and even the United States offering financial aid. There are plans in the works for full scale evacuations of many Islands Oceania, should there be a catastrophic upsurge in sea levels in the form of a king tide.

It is likely that those in Tuvalu, Nauru, and some Parts of the Maldives and the Marshall Islands could soon become people without a state, only a few years after joining the UN.

Goodbye Nanumea Island (Part of Tuvalu). We hardly knew ye.

This issue is the focus of this week’s GeocurrentCast, illustrated in Google Earth. We’ll be taking a satellite look at the fate of the world’s tiniest and least elevated island states.

To download the presentation, first download Google Earth.

Next, download this file, and double click the video icon in Google Earth to start the guided, narrated tour.

You can pause or stop the tour at any time to investigate some of the islands in closer detail.

Happy flying.

Geocurrents.info is now on twitter. Make us your source for history, geography, and cyber-cartography.

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Giant Killer Mice of Gough Island

Remote oceanic islands often form interesting laboratories for biological process, as well as arresting geopolitical anomalies. Few are as remarkable as Gough Island, a 35 square mile landmass in the temperate reaches of the South Atlantic. Although without a self-sustaining permanent population, Gough is one of the world’s most isolated places with a continuing human presence, which usually consists of six people running a weather station. Gough itself is a dependency of Tristan da Cunha, which is a dependency of Saint Helena, which is a British overseas territory.

In regard to biology, Gough is best known for its “giant killer mice.” Inadvertently introduced house mice have evolved into a new form roughly three times the size of their progenitors. Unfortunately, these super-rodents have learned to prey on seabird nestlings. In 2005, researchers announced that mice predation risked driving several endemic bird species to extinction, including the Tristan albatross and the Atlantic petrel. In response, the British government brought in experts from New Zealand, who have considerable experience dealing with biologically threatened islands. Officials in Britain are currently considering their proposals for eliminating the killer mice.

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