Catastrophic Landslides on Antipodes Island

This recent Austral (southern hemisphere) summer a team of researchers continued their annual Antipodean albatross monitoring. The Antipodean wandering albatross (Diomedea antipodensis) is only found on Antipodes Island, and is a close relative of the Gibson’s wandering albatross found on nearby Adams Island. This monitoring work has been going on for 20 years and has identified long-term trends in the population. Although the species fared well from 1996-2004, since 2005 the population has begun to crash from adult mortality associated with long-line fisheries in the Pacific. In 2012 the number of adult females was half that of 2004.

You can imagine the surprise of the summer team visiting the island for the first time since the previous winter trip, when they arrived only days after a seasonally unusual storm had hit the island, and found a mud slide had moved (but not destroyed) the hut over 10 metres, rotated it 90 degrees, and on a 10 degree slope. Most importantly of all – where were they going to sleep now? The unintended island castaways displayed kiwi commitment and soldiered on staying in the >100 year old castaway depot for their summer season of work, harvesting rainwater in buckets off the roof and salavaging food and equipment from the water-logged hut.

Antipodes Island Hut Cove slip January 2014 (Photo: Kath Walker)

Their work over the island found that dozens of landslides had occurred everywhere around precisely 2am on 6 January when the weather station stopped working. They even found one albatross chick buried alive (and still alive) up to its neck in mud begging for food. Unfortunately for thousands more burrowing seabirds their habitat (and summer breeding schedule) will have been entirely disrupted. You can imagine the team’s surprise again when the navy ship sent to recover them at the end of their work was itself forced to turn back due to a second seasonally unusual storm. When the navy did finally arrive to pick them up, the team worked to clear the hut by digging it out and hoisting it up to level it. The hut will hopefully be re-piled in time for the Million Dollar Mouse eradication in winter 2015, of course with a few less mice now!

Changing Planet

Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.