Heard and McDonald Islands

In this learning sequence, students investigate questions related to the protection of significant landscapes such as sub-Antarctic islands. By sparking interest in identifying a mystery island, students are guided to explore the climate, vegetation and wildlife of Heard Island. They investigate the diverse landforms that are present on this isolated island. Through comparing two sub-Antarctic islands students gain an understanding of why these places are significant. They use their knowledge to respond to a call to recommence sealing and whaling.

Setting the scene

Map detectives

Provide students with a copy of this ‘mystery island’ [PDF].

Challenge students in pairs to use their mapping skills to find out as much as they can about the mystery island.

For example:

  • What mapping conventions provide clues of its absolute location?
  • What is the approximate area?
  • What landforms are evident?
  • How might place names provide clues?
  • What can you tell about wildlife and vegetation?
  • What clues can you use to determine the climate?
  • Which other islands are in close proximity?

Ask students to draw a cross-section of the island based on its topography. Use compass points to indicate the view point (e.g: viewed from due south). Use other conventions to draw the map following BOLTS (Border, Orientation, Legend, Title and Scale). Alternatively model how to draw a cross-section showing how to interpret the topographic information. Discuss the landforms such as peaks, peninsulas and spits. Discuss how the point of view influences the cross-section map.

Using the latitude and longitude (53° S, 73.5° E), locate the mystery island on this map [PDF].

Describe the island’s location in relation to Antarctica and Australia. Use an online map service or an atlas to identify the island (Heard Island) and then view satellite imagery of the island. Provide a copy of the map showing the location of Heard and McDonald Islands [PDF].

Climate of Heard Island

Explain that although there is not a permanent meteorological station on Heard Island, Macquarie Island (which is at a similar latitude) does have one. Use climate data from Macquarie Island (54.6° S, 159° E) as a guide and compare it to the climate of Davis, Antarctica (68.6° S, 78° E).

Provide students with a copy of the worksheet, Comparing climates: Macquarie Island and Davis, Antarctica [PDF].


  • What the data suggests about the climate of each location and any patterns observed. How did graphing the numerical data help to identify any patterns?
  • Ways in which climate might influence the types of vegetation at each location. What do plants need to survive? What factors might limit their ability to survive?
  • How this data might be useful to predict the climate on Heard Island. Which climate is Heard Island likely to resemble and why?
  • Other factors that may influence the climate on Heard Island e.g: wind, ocean currents (cold and warmer oceans meet) and landforms (mountainous peaks, glaciers, exposed peninsulas).

Explore and research

Luscious landforms

View images of Heard Island’s diverse landscape.

Ask students to compare their initial ideas about the types of landscapes they predicted from their interpretation of the mystery island map, with those in the image gallery. Use the copy of the map to identify particular land forms seen in the images. They can also refer to their cross-section map.

Describe 5–6 key landforms in detail. Use a relevant image to accompany the text. Ensure students cite the copyright owner.

Heard island: evolution of land forms

View information on the geomorphology of Heard Island.

Provide guiding questions:

  • What are Big Ben and Mt Dixon? How do they compare in size? How were they formed?
  • What type of land form are ‘The Nullarbor’ and ‘Elephant spit’? How did these land forms (low gravel isthmuses) form?
  • How do glaciers contribute to changes in the landscape?
  • How have lava flows contributed to the landscape?

View information on the glaciology of Heard Island.

Provide guiding questions:

  • How extensive is the ice cover on Heard Island?
  • Does it have permanent snow coverage?
  • How many glaciers cover the island?
  • What role do temperature and elevation play in the formation of a glacier?
  • What is the relationship between their orientation and where they terminate? Why might this be the case?
  • What land form has formed at the end of glaciers that have retreated? What has caused this retreat?

Vegetation on Heard Island

Consider reasons why plants may struggle to survive in polar and sub-polar regions. Refer back to the climate data and graphs.

View information about the plants of Heard Island and McDonald Islands

View images of plants on the islands.

Discover how many flowering plants are able to survive in the harsh climate experienced on Heard and McDonald Islands.

Provide guiding questions:

  • Where on the islands are plants mostly located?
  • How do vascular (flowering plants) and non-vascular plants differ? How does this adaptation enable vascular plants such as mosses, liverworts and lichens to survive where vascular plants cannot?

Explain and share

A wildlife paradise

As a class discuss and list the types of animals that would be expected to inhabit Heard and McDonald Islands. In a class discussion, explore reasons why these islands would be a paradise for particular animals. Build on the ideas of others by ‘piggy-backing’ on their ideas, posing questions to include all students.

Elaborate and apply

Macquarie Island and Heard Islands

Compare and contrast similarities and differences between Macquarie Island and Heard Islands using a suitable graphic organiser.

A matrix such as this is one possible graphic organiser.

Macquarie Island Heard Island
Land forms
Human impact

Students may use a Venn diagram or other graphic organiser with which they are familiar. Ask students to develop their own categories for comparison.

View information about the Macquarie Island environment.

After completing their comparison encourage students to summarise their ideas and develop a conclusion.

Protecting natural areas

Discuss why sub-Antarctic islands such as Macquarie Island and Heard and McDonald Islands need protection. Describe three reasons why these areas should be protected. Make a list of the potential threats to each environment. How is each island’s wildlife connected to that of Antarctica and its surrounding oceans?

How does international recognition of this area enhance the likelihood that these areas will remain protected for the future?

Impact of climate change

Discuss the climate conditions of the sub-Antarctic islands and the potential threat of climate change. Provide students with access to one or both of these resources to analyse and provide their response. What are their thoughts on the issue?


Tourism on Heard Island

Introduce the task of developing a response to a country’s plan to build tourist accommodation on Heard Island.

Task 1: The first part of the task is for collaborative groups to develop a plan for the tourist accommodation. Consider impacts of prevailing winds, safe harbours and minimising impact on the environment. Provide sketches and maps and describe the type of planned tourist activities.

Task 2: Organise each collaborative group to present their plan to a mock governing body that will provide feedback on the plan. Organise students in groups to take on the role of governing body. Rotate the groups so that each student gets a turn at presenting a plan and assessing.

The governing body will assess the plan against agreed criteria such as:

  • strategies to minimise threats to island wildlife populations
  • strategies to minimise human impact on the island (referring to fragile plants, breeding colonies and potential for introduced species)
  • site suitability and use of supporting maps and sketches

Assessment ideas

At various points in the learning, assess to what extent students:

  • use mapping conventions to create and interpret maps
  • identify and describe landforms of sub-Antarctic islands
  • collect and analyse graphical data about sub-Antarctic islands
  • describe process that produce landforms such as volcanoes and glaciers
  • describe ways to protect significant landscapes?