Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 12:50 EDT
Kerguelen Island South Indian Ocean
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Kerguelen Island, South Indian Ocean

May 9, 2011
On April 25, 2011 the clouds parted over the South Indian Ocean to reveal Kerguelen Island's tan and green-tinged landscape. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured this true-color image on the same day.

Kerguelen is the largest of about 300 islands, islets and reefs in the Kerguelen Archipelago, a sub-antarctic chain of islands of volcanic origin located about 3,300 miles (5,310 km) from the southern tip of Africa. It has also often been called Desolation Island for the barren, uninhabited landscape. Today there is a small scientific settlement at Port-aux-Francais which harbors visiting scientists. This site sits in the northeast, in a sheltered bay, but is not visible in this image.

The island was named after Yves de Kerguelen-Tremarec, a Breton Captain sent by King Louis XV of France in the late 1700's to search for a massive southern continent that was believed to exist as a “balance” the continents of the northern hemisphere. The Captain himself never set foot on the land, although one of his company did ultimately plant a flag, claiming the archipelago for France.

Kerguelen's coastline is highly irregular and is marked by fjords and large peninsulas. Inland, the terrain is rugged and rocky, with numerous ridges and valleys and, on the highest elevations, glaciers are found. The highest point of the island is Mount Ross, at 6,068 feet (1850 meters). It can be seen in the south of the island, and is marked by a white glaciated cap. To the northwest of Mount Ross, the large white circle marks Cook Glacier.

The primary color of the island is tan, not because the land is dry, but because it is very rocky. Water is abundant, with precipitation falling on average of 300 days a year. Vegetative growth is limited by the rocky land as well as the constant, biting winds. The primary vegetation consists of tussock grass (Poa cooki), mosses, and the Kerguelen cabbage (Pringlea antiscorbutica). The cabbage served as a life-saving source of Vitamin C for early explorers and it has drawn attention for its unique style of cross pollination which relies solely on the island's winds, because no insects exist on the island.