Ball’s Pyramid

A Clive special from 2015, re-published because it is worth re-reading.

Photo: Hatty Gottschalk ‘Spaces’. Reproduced with permission of Hatty Gottschalk. Please visit his wonderful photos at: Well worth a look!

Ever since I saw my first pictures of Ball’s Pyramid, I wanted to know more about this isolated and amazing structure.

The pyramid is named after Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, who discovered it in 1788. On the same voyage, Ball also discovered Lord Howe Island.

In the book The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay With An Account Of The Establishment Of The Colonies Of Port Jackson And Norfolk Island (1789), Arthur Phillip gives this description of Ball’s pyramid:

“The island is in the form of a crescent, the convex side towards the north-east. Two points at first supposed to be separate islands, proved to be high mountains on its south-west end, the southernmost of which was named Mount Gower, and the other Mount Lidgbird; between these mountains there is a very deep valley, which obtained the name of Erskine Valley; the south-east point was called Point King, and the north-west point, Point Phillip. The land between these two points forms the concave side of the island facing the south-west, and is lined with a sandy beach, which is guarded against the sea by a reef of coral rock, at the distance of half a mile from the beach, through which there are several small openings for boats; but it is to be regretted that the depth of water within the reef no where exceeds four feet. They found no fresh water on the island…” [2]

Ball’s Pyramid is the world’s tallest volcanic stack. It is part of the Lord Howe Island Marine Park, which is recorded by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site of global natural significance.

Ball’s Pyramid is an erosional remnant of a shield volcano and caldera that according to potassium-argon dating formed about 7 million years ago. It is located approximately 20 kilometres (12 mi) southeast of Lord Howe Island in the Pacific Ocean. It is 562 metres (1,844 ft) high, while measuring only 1,100 metres (3,600 ft) in length and 300 metres (980 ft) across, making it the tallest volcanic stack in the world.

The Pyramid is located in the Tasman Sea in the south west Pacific Ocean approximately 700 km (420 nm) north east of Sydney, New South Wales. The Lord Howe Island group comprises Lord Howe Island, the Admiralty Islands, Mutton Bird Island, Ball’s Pyramid, and some coral reefs. The Lord Howe Island Group is the top of Lord Howe Rise (an underwater plateau) and sits on the western edge of a large shield volcano which erupted about seven million years ago. The ancient volcano rises more than 2000 metres above the seabed on the western flank of the Lord Howe Rise, a major physiographic feature of the south west Pacific area. The sea has reclaimed most of the original volcano, leaving the Lord Howe Island group. The landscape is spectacular with the volcanic mountains of Mt Gower (875 m) and Mt Lidgbird (777 m) in the south and the northern hills rising virtually sheer from the sea.

Ball’s Pyramid also has a few satellite islands. Observatory Rock and Wheatsheaf Islet lie close by. Like Lord Howe Island and the Lord Howe seamount chain, Ball’s Pyramid is based on the Lord Howe Rise, part of the submerged continent of Zealandia.

“Ball’s Pyramid North” by Fanny Schertzer – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons –

Volcanic heritage

Ball’s Pyramid is composed of nearly horizontally-bedded basalt lava flows, the remnants of a volcanic plug formed in a former vent of a volcano. After the eruption of the shield volcano, the slopes became truncated to form a broad submarine shelf.

Geologists believe that there were two main volcanic episodes in the formation of the Lord Howe Island group. Most of the volcanic activity took place some 6.9 million years ago, and comprised several volcanic vents, ultimately producing a large shield volcano about 30 km in diameter. It is thought that the volcano’s maximum height above sea level was about 1,000 metres.

Around 6.3 million years ago the area around the main vent collapsed and left a huge oval-shaped pit or caldera, perhaps five kilometres long, two kilometres wide, and 900 metres deep. At this time further volcanic material pushed up from beneath the earth’s crust to infill the caldera in a series of horizontal lava flows, varying from one to thirty metres in thickness. In this second period of volcanic activity, the basalt rocks were harder and more erosion resistant, standing today as the southern mountains which still rise to 875 metres above sea level. (9)

Ball’s Pyramid is located in the centre of the shelf, which forms a platform that is about 20 km from north to south, and averages 10 km wide. The average water depth above the shelf is around 50 metres. A similar but slightly larger shelf surrounds Lord Howe Island, and the two platforms are separated by a canyon that exceeds 500 m in depth. Eventually due to erosion by waves the volcanoes will be completely gone, unless a coral reef forms around it and protects its shoreline.

Ball’s Pyramid is home to a small population of Lord Howe Island stick insects, a species previously thought to be extinct. The Lord Howe Island batfish is also only found at this location. (8)

Photo By GraniteThighs reprinted under


There is speculation that Balls Pyramid rock is aligned in the same direction as a mega-tsunami that hit Bass Point and possibly the South Island of New Zealand. A tsunami tens of metres high could cause the strange features observed on Balls Pyramid. (2)

Ball’s Pyramid cliffs are devoid of talus and the feature has an aerodynamic shape aligned to other smaller, sculptured forms on the main island.

Further odd features are widespread within the Australian coastal environment. Lord Howe Island provides evidence that tsunamis did not originate locally along the South Coast of New South Wales, but were ubiquitous in the Tasman Sea. For example, Lord Howe Island is dominated by numerous sculptured bedrock features at varying scales and orientations – the latter without apparent structural control. Streamlined inverted keel-like features are prominent on the eastern side of the island indicating a tsunami wave approach from the Kermadec trench north of New Zealand. (3)

More generally

The Lord Howe shield volcano was built thus. Tholeiitic lavas of the North Ridge Basalt comprise the main shield building phase and were erupted about 6.9 Ma ago. The Boat Harbour Breccia probably formed within the throat of the volcano and, together with the North Ridge Basalt, is intruded by numerous basaltic dykes, which grade into a cone sheet complex near the main vent. Large scale collapse of the summit area of the volcano produced a caldera which was filled rapidly by lavas of the Mount Lidgbird Basalt some 6.4 Ma ago, bringing to a close the volcanic history of Lord Howe Island. The shield volcano thus was built during a short interval in the late Miocene.

Palaeomagnetic data show that the North Ridge Basalt and the Mount Lidgbird Basalt were erupted during periods when the geomagnetic field had normal polarity, and that their formation was separated by at least one interval of reversed polarity when the dykes and cone sheets were emplaced. The directions of magnetisation for the lavas and intrusives are such that, palaeomagnetically, no movement of Lord Howe Island is detected since its formation. (6)

The shelf which surrounds the Lord Howe Island Group extends slightly beyond 3 nautical miles where there is then a very steep ‘drop-off’ representing a major discontinuity between the shallow inshore and shelf environments and the deep sea. The main structure of the seamount is contained within 12 nm of the shoreline of Lord Howe Island. Recent seabed multi-beam swath mapping surveys conducted around Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid indicate a high degree of benthic complexity. Data from surveys show a rugged terrain on the submarine flanks of these volcanic islands, including down-slope flow structures (probably old lava flows), canyons and numerous volcanic cones and pinnacles, many 200-300 metres high.

Lord Howe Island is the subaerial part of a large seamount which lies at the southern end of a northerly‐trending line of volcanic seamounts extending for more than 1000 km. The Lord Howe seamount chain probably was produced by movement of the Australian lithospheric plate over a magma source or hot spot located below the plate within the upper mantle. Other data suggest that the Australian plate is moving N at about 6 cm/a and from this it is predicted that the seamount underlying Nova Bank, at the northern end of the chain, was constructed by volcanic activity about 23 Ma ago. Similarly, if volcanism were to occur now in the Lord Howe seamount chain its location would probably be around 400 km S of Lord Howe Island (6)

Lord Howe Island and adjacent Balls Pyramid are composed of the basalts that erupted around 6-7 million years ago and sit near the middle of broad shelves on separate peaks of one major volcanic edifice. The central part of the Lord Howe Island is covered by calcarenite that was deposited primarily as dunes (eolianite). Towering plunging cliffs characterise the resistant Mount Lidgbird Basalt, in some cases fringed with large talus slopes. On less resistant rock structures, or where nearshore topography means greater wave force as a result of waves breaking, there are shore platforms. Slumping cliffs abut broad erosional platforms on the poorly lithified calcarenite. (7)

In summary I would like to say much of this article is culled and rewritten from various papers listed below in the References. I’m not a scientist and rely on the writing of others. I hope one day to visit this amazing place but, sadly, it is unlikely. It has fascinated me for years and I wanted to share with you my interest in the place, hence my little article for you all.

Hope you enjoyed learning about it!

References and further reading [accessed 26/5/14]

During 2001 Dr Edward Bryant from the University of Wollongong published a book “Tsunami: The Underrated Hazard”. He proposes that the best explanation for a range of odd geological features along the south east coast of Australia is that at least one large tsunami struck the coastline around 1500 AD. The book describes these geological features and the mechanisms by which they can be produced by tsunami. The book also covers historical accounts around the world, the physicsc of tsunami, causes of tsunami and a review of the risk to coastal populations.

Geological Indicators of Large Tsunami in Australia A. BRYANT and J. NOTT

A management strategy for Lord Howe Island for the Australian voluntary conservation movement. A Paradise in Peril. John Sinclair, May, 2002

Lord Howe Island Marine Park Proposal, March 2000

McDougalla, B. J. J. Embletonab & D. B. Stoneac (1981) Origin and evolution of Lord Howe Island, Southwest Pacific Ocean . Journal of the Geological Society of Australia, Volume 28, Issue 1-2, pages 155-176.

Colin D. Woodroffe, David M. Kennedy, Brendan P. Brooke, and Mark E. Dickson (2006) Geomorphological Evolution of Lord Howe Island and Carbonate Production at the Latitudinal Limit to Reef Growth. Journal of Coastal Research: Volume 22, Issue 1: pp. 188 – 201. [accessed 26/5/14]

Lord Howe Island Musuem

Published for the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics by the Australian Government Publishing Service, Commonwealth of Australia, 1981

(Finally) Completed by Clive Ruffle 3 June 2015!

37 thoughts on “Ball’s Pyramid

  1. Carl did not quite manage to finish his promised post which was a more difficult topic than originally envisaged. Something to do with bumblebees. So instead, an oldie which was well worth rescuing from the archives.

    • He will post it later right?
      That will be an intresting one

      • I don’t know. every VC post is a surprise. Often to us as well.

        • This is a special one for me I know what its about
          I hopes its not cancelled : (

          • Insider info: Yes, it is being kicked around in the back channel. Last I saw, someone was poking it with a stick.

        • What if flowers and a dinner are provided?

          For all… this is a flat-out joke. No ill will intended.

          And yes, I agree that it’s not a very good joke. I make no apologies for that.

  2. Nice read! I just came back from a tour through the Dolomites. So incredibly intriguing. Just like this ‘weird’ island.

  3. To me the really interesting bit is the tsunamis. These appear to have been both very widespread and very large and relatively recent. Given a repeat would be ‘rather devastating’ both for New Zealand and Australia I was expecting the article to examine this in more detail as it seems to be somewhat unknown and also topical, or at least has the potential to be topical at some point in the future.

    Of course, that’s a whole lot more days of work to do.

    • It’s lost in this site
      but there are articles about a major tsunami in the Tasman Sea that allegedly occurred 500 years ago.
      Hence the supposed aboriginal legend: “A great white wave that fell from the sky”
      and the Maori of “a great fire” in southern New Zealand.
      I don’t know if that’s true.

    • Has there been any progress on that legendary impactor ? Given a glance at a globe predicts six at sea per one on land, where are they ? Ah, yes, VELA incidents that were not GRBs…

      Deep ocean has a way of swallowing evidence, but I must wonder if ‘vectored’ scouring around the many sea-mounts might point to ‘ground zero’. Sadly, hard to study…

      FWIW, such a tsunami might account for the curious lack of indigenous maritime culture along that SE Australian coast. Reef-gleaning seems all…

      • It is actually 2.4 water impacts for every land impact. But impacts big enough to cause a tsunami are very rare. Tunguska would only have caused a local wave. The large majority of tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes and landslides. The rest is volcanic.

  4. Why, what a surprise to come along for my morning visit, and find my old article! Thank you! I thought that had been lost in some server crash a while back, or something. Hope it entertains!

    • It wasn’t lost, just not accessible to us. We figured you wouldn’t mind it being resurrected after four years of dormancy.

    • Hope it entertains!”

      It’s a good article. Creepy bug, but the article is a good read.

  5. Aviation code to red for Etna. Explosions are tossing some ash at the airport.

  6. Going by what’s mentioned in article posted above, Lord Howe Island must’ve been about the size of today’s Lana’i in Hawai’i. The caldera itself must also have been a bit bigger than Kilauea’s present-day one. Given the general type of volcanic rocks, it must have had fairly frequent eruptions not unlike those we see on Kilauea or Mauna Loa today during its peak activity. The local climate was also a little warmer at the time (5-7 mya).

  7. Kilauea keeps getting wetter

    It is roughly 100 by 50 meters, and 10 metes wide. HVO still calls it a pond. The temperature seems fairly constant at a scalding 70C (in spite of the rising water table). I guess that the water that enters has made it way through the rock, which was heated by the decade-long lava pond.

  8. as usually (from IMO)
    03.10.2019 20:33:15 64.627 -17.365 0.1 km 3.1 99.0 7.9 km E of Bárðarbunga

    • Friday
      04.10.2019 16:31:38 64.620 -17.440 1.1 km 3.7 50.5 4.7 km ESE of Bárðarbunga

      • Manually corrected to

        04.10.2019 16:31:38 64.617 -17.424 0.1 km 3.1 99.0 5.6 km ESE of Bárðarbunga

    • They themselves call the impact hypothesis ‘highly controversial’. That is mildly speaking. The hypothesis isn’t even clear on which hemisphere the impact would have happened, and one paper even claims two impacts, one north and one south. That indicates a theory that is in trouble. Open mind, etc., but this needs a LOT more evidence. ‘Highly controversial’ means ‘very unlikely’.

      • The authors state they found platinum spikes dated 12.800 years ago. Platinum is VERY STRONG evidence for an impact event, even if small. Platinum is just very rare on the planet but abundant in meteorites. So it must have come from the outer space.

        Now, a platinum spike in a single country could mean a small local impact, like Tunguska, which on itself is insufficient to trigger a sudden cold snap, but a more widespread platinum distribution would indicate a larger impact event for a body with a few hundred meters and large enough to trigger sudden climate change.

        Slowly, I am starting to lean towards the Young Dryas impact hypothesis

        But the final proof would be the need for a widespread platinum spike and ideally, also a confirmed impact crater. They could drill on the Greenland crater to investigate its age.

        • Younger Dryas is odd because unlike other abrupt cooling events, The warming afterwards was sudden instead of gradual. The warming was more abrupt then the cooling. Just look at the graph it does look like some type of aerosols or dusting event.
          I am more of a believer in the laacher see hypothesis though.

      • IMHO, mentioning ‘Younger Dryas’ often prompts protagonists to demand dawn duels…

        Snags are, IIRC…
        1) There is no convincing modelling for a mid-sized ice-sheet impact beyond ‘Be NOT There’.
        2) Potential impactors may be binary, split or come with a ‘side-kick’ mini-moon, so ‘Occam’s Razor’ need not apply.
        3) Ice ages are very, very good at scouring evidence…

    • Two things I’m noting.

      First – just noting that there could possibly be a relationship with the time they mentioned here and the spike in the chart here – . I’m not sure how precise their date of 12800 BP is, but that’s not too far off geologically speaking from the 10675 B.C spike (which is equivalent to 12694 BP).

      Second, volcanic eruptions also can cause spikes in platinum. So we can’t rule out a volcanic origin here, even if it’s unlikely.

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