South Shetland Islands

May 29, 2011, 11:13 am
Source: Wikipedia

caption Source: Eduardo Olazabal Salgado

The South Shetland Islands are a group of over twenty islands approximately 60 to 150 miles (100 to 240 kilometers) north and northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula and 530 miles (850 km) south and southwest of Cape Horn Several of the islands are, or include, active volcanoes. The islands were heavily exploited for seal hunting in the early nineteenth century. Now they include numerous research stations and are popular with antarctic tourists.

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 United Kingdom (since 1908), Chile (since 1940) and by Argentina (since 1943).

There are sixteen research stations to date in different parts of the islands, maintained by several countries, with Chilean stations being the most in numerous. Most of research stations are situated on King George Island, benefiting from the airfield of the Chilean base Eduardo Frei. Research is often a shared duty of nations, with Chilean-American Shirreff Base being an example of this.


caption South Shetland Islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula

As a group of islands, the South Shetland Islands fall within the region 61° 00'–63° 37' South, 53° 83'–62° 83' West. The center of the largest island (King George Island) is at 62° 00'S 58°24'W. The Islands extend approximately 300 miles along a line running approximately southwest to northeast. The islands lie 1200 km south of the Falkland Islands. At its closest, the Antarctic continent is approximately 60 miles (97 km) south of Deception Island. The South Shetland Islands lie at the eastern end of the Bellingshausen Sea and the western end of the Weddell Sea.

The South Shetlands consist of 11 major islands and several minor ones, totaling 3687 square kilometers 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 meters above sea level.

From northeast to southwest the main and some minor islands of the South Shetlands are:

  • Clarence Island
  • Cornwallis Island
  • Elephant Island
  • Rowett Island
  • Gibbs Island
  • King George Island
  • Bridgeman Island
  • Penguin Island
  • Nelson Island
  • Robert Island
  • Aitcho Islands
  • Greenwich Island
  • Half Moon Island
  • Desolation Island
  • Livingston Island
  • Rugged Island
  • Deception Island
  • Snow Island
  • Smith Island
  • Low Island
  • Seal Island

The South Shetland Islands extend about 300 miles from Smith Island and Snow Island  in the west-southwest to Elephant Island and Clarence Island  in the east-northeast.

The islands are volcanically active. Deception Island is a volcano with a flooded caldera. Bridgeman Island and Penguin Island are also volcanically active.


caption Renier Point, the east extremity of Burgas Peninsula and Livingston Island.

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. The weather can be very variable

The warmest months are January and February, while the coldest month is July. 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.


In 1599, Dutch ship commanded by Dirck Gerritsz Pomp was blown off course south from the Straits of Magellan and logged a sighting of mountainous land 64 degrees south. It is possible that this was a sighting of the South Shetlands.

In 1818, an Argentinian Juan Predr de Agguirre obtained permission to undertake seal hunting on "some of the uninhabited islands near the South Pole". This has been claimed as knowledge of the South Shetlands, but it remains unclear.

In February 1819, a British merchant ship, the Williams, under the command of William Smith, diverted far to the south of Cape Horn looking for favorable winds and sighted the South Shetlands. In October, Smith returned and landed in several places. Two months later, the British navy in Valparaiso, Chile, commissioned the Williams to conduct further exploration with Smith as pilot to Lieutenant Edward Bransfield. In late January, 1820, they reached the islands and began charting them.

caption Williams Point, discovered on 19 February 1819.

However, news of Smith's discovery, and the presence of seals had spread quickly. 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.

In late 1820, over fifty American and British sealing boats descended on the islands to hunt seals. Within a three seasons the seal population of the South Shetlands was decimated. In 1829, a visitor to the islands saw none. At the end of 1820–21 Antarctic summer season, eleven men from the British ship Lord Melville were stranded on King George Island in the South Shetlands and were the first to overwinter on the islands before being rescued.

Having circumnavigated the Antarctic continent, the Russian Antarctic expedition of Thaddeus von Bellinghausen 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).

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.

Research Stations and Field Camps

Several nations maintain research stations on the Islands including:

  • Jubany (Argentina, established 1953)
  • St. Kliment Ohridski (Bulgaria, established 1988)
  • Comandante Ferraz Base (Brazil, established 1984)
  • Presidente Eduardo Frei Base (Chile, established 1969)
  • Professor Julio Escudero Base (Chile, established 1994)
  • Captain Arturo Prat Base (Chile, established 1947)
  • Shirreff Base (Chile/United States established 1990)
  • Chang Cheng / Great Wall (China established 1985)
  • Pedro Vicente Maldonado Base (Equador established 1990)
  • Juan Carlos I Base (Spain established 1988)
  • Gabriel de Castilla Base (Spain established 1989)
  • King Sejong Station (South Korea established1988)
  • Machu Picchu Research Station (Peru established 1989)
  • Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station (Poland established1977)
  • Bellingshausen Station (Russia established1968)
  • Artigas Base (Uruquay established 1984)

Several nations maintain field camps for seasonal research, including

  • Camp Academia (Brazil)
  • Camp Byers (Spain)

See Also

Further Reading

  1. Antarctica Observed, A.G.E. Jones, Caedmon of Whitby, 1982 ISBN: 0905355253.
  2. The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands, 1819-1820 : The Journal of Midshipman C. W. Poynter, R. J. Campbell (editor), Hakluyt Society, 2001
  3. Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997 ISBN: 0393039498.
  4. Antarctica: Exploring the Extreme: 400 Years of Adventureby Marilyn J. Landis, Chicago Review Press, 2001 ISBN: 1556524285.
  5. South Pole: A Narrative History of the Exploration of Antarctica by Anthony Brandt, NG Adventure Classics, 2004 ISBN: 0792267974.
  6. Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
  7. 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,
  8. Foreign and Commonwealth Office - profile of BAT
  9. Argentine Government website about the history of Antarctica
  10. GPS Visualizer
  11. Interactive King George Island Mapviewer
  12. Climate Brief for South Shetland Islands, L.A. Murphy, Retrieved November 26, 2008




(2011). South Shetland Islands. Retrieved from


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