South Shetland Islands

South Shetland Islands

The South Shetland Islands are a group of Antarctic islands, lying about 120 kilometres north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Fact|date=November 2007 Under the Antarctic Treaty 1959, the Islands' sovereignty is neither recognized nor disputed by the signatories and they are free for use by any signatory for non-military use.

The Islands have been claimed by the UK since 1908 and are part of British Antarctic Territory since 1962. They are claimed by Chile (since 1940) as part of the Antártica Chilena Province and by Argentina (since 1943) as part of Argentine Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego Province.

Several countries maintain research stations on the Islands. Most of them are situated on King George Island, benefitting from the airfield of the Chilean base Eduardo Frei.

There are sixteen research stations to date in different parts of the islands, with Chilean stations being the uttermost in number. Research is often a shared duty of nations, with Chilean-American Shirreff base being an example of this.


The Dutchman Dirck Gerritsz in 1599, or the Spaniard Gabriel de Castilla in 1603 travelled through these Antarctic lands, both of them supposedly sailing south of the Drake Passage in the South Shetland Islands area. In 1818 Juan Pedro de Aguirre obtained permission from the Buenos Aires authorities to install an establishment for sealing on "some of the uninhabited islands near the South Pole". [ [ Historia Antártica ] ]

Captain William Smith in the British merchant brig "Williams", while sailing to Valparaiso, Chile in 1819 deviated from his route south of Cape Horn, and on 19 February sighted Williams Point, the northeast extremity of Livingston Island. Smith revisited the South Shetlands, landed on King George Island on 16 October 1819, and claimed possession for Britain. Thus Livingston Island became the first land ever discovered south of the 60th southern latitude.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Navy ship San Telmo sank in September 1819 whilst trying to go through the Drake Passage. Parts of her supposed wreckage were found months later by sealers on the north coast of Livingston Island.

In December 1819 - January 1820 the islands were surveyed and mapped by Lieutenant Edward Bransfield onboard the "Williams", with the ship chartered by the Royal Navy.

Already on 15 November 1819 the American agent in Valparaíso, Jeremy Robinson informed the US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Smith’s discovery and Bransfield’s forthcoming mission, and suggested the dispatch of a US government ship to explore the islands where "new sources of wealth, power and happiness would be disclosed and science itself be benefited thereby."

The discovery of the islands attracted British and American sealers. The first sealing ship to operate in the area was the brig "Espirito Santo" chartered by British merchants in Buenos Aires. The ship arrived at Rugged Island off Livingston Island, where its British crew landed on Christmas Day 1819, and claimed the islands for King George III; a narrative of the events was published by the brig's master Joseph Herring in the July 1820 edition of the "Imperial Magazine". The "Espirito Santo" was followed from the Falkland Islands by the American brig "Hersilia" commanded by Captain James Sheffield (with second mate Nathaniel Palmer), the first American sealer in the South Shetlands.The first overwintering in Antarctica took place on the South Shetlands, when at the end of the 1820/21 summer season eleven British men from the ship "Lord Melville" failed to leave King George Island, and successfully survived throughout the austral winter to be rescued at the beginning of the next season.

Having circumnavigated the Antarctic continent, the Russian Antarctic expedition of Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev arrived to the South Shetlands in January 1821. The Russians surveyed the islands and named them, landing on both King George Island and Elephant Island. While sailing between Deception and Livingston islands, Bellingshausen was visited by Nathaniel Palmer, master of the American brig "Hero," who informed him of the activities of dozens of American and British sealing ships in the area.

The name "New South Britain" was used briefly, but was soon changed to South Shetland Islands (in reference to the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland). The name South Shetland Islands is now established in international usage. Both sets of islands actually lie at a similar distance from the South Pole and North Pole respectively, but the South Shetlands are much colder (see below).

Seal hunting and whaling took place on the islands in the 19th and early 20th century. From 1908 the islands were governed as part of the Falkland Islands Dependency but the islands have only been occupied since the establishment of a scientific research station in 1944. The archipelago, together with the nearby Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, is an increasingly popular tourist destination during the austral summer.


As a group of islands, the South Shetland Islands are located at coord|62|0|S|58|0|W|display=inline,title. They fall within the region 61° 00'–63° 37' South, 53° 83'–62° 83' West. The islands lie 1200km south of the Falkland Islands and slightly more than 150km north of the nearest point of the Antarctic continent, Graham Land.

The South Shetlands consist of 11 major islands and several minor ones, totalling 3687 square kilometres of land area. Between 80 and 90 percent of the land area is permanently glaciated. The highest point on the island chain is Mount Foster in Imeon Range on Smith Island at 2105 metres above sea level.

The South Shetland Islands extend about 280 miles from Smith Island and Snow Island in the west-southwest to Elephant Island and Clarence Island in the east-northeast.


The islands are the same distance from the equator as the Faroe islands in the north Atlantic but their proximity to Antarctica means that they have a much colder climate. The sea around the islands is closed by ice from early April to early December and the monthly average temperature is below 0°C for eight months of the year (April to November).

The islands have experienced measurable glacier retreat in recent years but despite this they remain more than 80% snow and ice covered throughout the summer. The climate is cloudy and humid all year round and very strong westerly winds blow at all seasons. Some of the sunniest weather is associated with outbreaks of very cold weather from the south in late winter and spring.

Mean summer temperatures are only about 1.5°C and those in winter are about -5°C. The effect of the cold ocean tends to keep summer temperatures low and winter temperatures from falling as low as they do inland to the south. [GHCN Climate data, GISS data publications, period 1978-2007]


From north to south the main and some minor islands of the South Shetlands are:

* Cornwallis Island (minor)
* Elephant Island (Mordvinova by Russia)
* Clarence Island (Shishkova by Russia)
* Rowett Island (minor)
* Gibbs Island (minor)
* King George Island (the largest, called May 25 island by Argentina, or Vaterloo by Russia)
* Bridgeman Island (minor)
* Penguin Island (minor - one of several Penguin Islands in the Antarctic region, also believed to be the location of the popular online game Club Penguin)
* Nelson Island (Leipzig by Russia)
* Robert Island (Polotsk by Russia)
* Aitcho Islands (minor)
* Greenwich Island (Berezina by Russia)
* Half Moon Island (minor)
* Desolation Island (minor)
* Livingston Island (second largest, Smolensk by Russia)
* Rugged Island (minor - one of several in the Antarctic region)
* Snow Island (one of several in the Antarctic region; Maly Yaroslavets by Russia)
* Smith Island (Borodino by Russia)
* Deception Island (Teylya by Russia)
* Low Island
* Seal Island (minor)

(The Russian names above are historical, and no longer the official Russian names of the relevant islands.)

Research Stations

Several nations maintain research stations on the Islands:

* - Jubany (since 1953)
* - St. Kliment Ohridski (since 1988)
* - Comandante Ferraz Base (since 1984)
* - Presidente Eduardo Frei Base (since 1969)
* - Professor Julio Escudero Base (since 1994)
* - Captain Arturo Prat Base (since 1947)
*Flagicon|USA Chile/USA - Shirreff Base (since 1990)
* - Chang Cheng / Great Wall (since 1985)
* - Pedro Vicente Maldonado Base (since 1990)
* - Juan Carlos I Base (since 1988)
* - Gabriel de Castilla Base (since 1989)
* - King Sejong Station (since 1988)
* - Machu Picchu Research Station (since 1989)
* - Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station (since 1977)
* - Bellingshausen Station (since 1968)
* - Artigas Base (since 1984)

Field Camps

* - Camp Academia
* - Camp Byers

ee also

* British Antarctic Territory
* Sub-antarctic islands
* Livingston Island
* King George Island
* Deception Island
* Greenwich Island


* [ Interactive King George Island Mapviewer]
* L.L. Ivanov et al, (from English Strait to Morton Strait, with illustrations and ice-cover distribution), 1:100000 scale topographic map, Antarctic Place-names Commission of Bulgaria, Sofia, 2005

Notes and references

* A.G.E. Jones, Captain William Smith and the Discovery of New South Shetland, "Geographical Journal", Vol. 141, No. 3 (Nov., 1975), pp. 445-461
* Alan Gurney, "Below the Convergence: Voyages Toward Antarctica, 1699-1839", Penguin Books, New York, 1998
* R.J. Campbell ed., "The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands: The Voyage of the Brig Williams, 1819-1820 and the Journal of Midshipman C.W. Poynter", The Hakluyt Society, London, 2000
* Capt. Hernán Ferrer Fougá, [ El hito austral del confín de América. El cabo de Hornos. (Siglo XIX, 1800-1855). (Segunda parte)] . "Revista de Marina, Valparaíso", 2004, N° 1
* General Survey of Climatology V12, Landsberg ed,. (1984), Elsevier

External links

* [ Commonwealth Secretariat Website describing BAT]
* [ Foreign and Commonwealth Office - profile of BAT]
* [ Government Website with a map of the South Shetland Islands]
* [ Argentine Government website about the history of Antarctica]
* [ Argentine Antarctic Sector: Historical Documents]
* [ Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica]
* [ Antarctic Place-names Commission of Bulgaria]

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