The South Shetland Islands are a group of Antarctic islands, lying about 120
kilometers (75 mi) north of the Antarctic Peninsula, with a total area of 3
687 square kilometers (1,424 sq mi). By the Antarctic Treaty of 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 the governments of Chile
(since 1940, as part of the Antártica Chilena Province) and 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, benefiting 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 greatest 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 traveled 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".
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. Thus Livingston Island became the first land ever discovered south
of the 60th southern latitude. Smith revisited the South Shetlands, landed
on King George Island on 16 October 1819, and claimed possession for Britain
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.
During 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
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
Norwegian whaling boat, Half Moon Island
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 survived
successfully 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
Seal hunting and whaling was done on the islands during 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 during 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 62°0′S
58°0′W. They are within the region 61° 00'–63° 37' South, 53° 83'–62° 83'
West. The islands lie 940 km south of the Falkland Islands, and between 93
km (Deception Island) and 269 km (Clarence Island) northwest and north from
the nearest point of the Antarctic continent, Graham Land.
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 Irving on Clarence Island at 2300 meters 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
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 during recent years
but despite this they remain more than 80% snow and ice covered throughout
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 ocean tends to keep summer temperatures low and
winter temperatures from decreasing as low as they do inland to the south.
Flora and fauna
Despite the harsh conditions the islands do support vegetation and are part
of the Scotia Sea Islands tundra ecoregion, along with South Georgia and the
South Sandwich Islands, the South Orkney Islands and Bouvet Island. All
these islands lie in the cold seas below the Antarctic convergence. These
areas support tundra vegetation consisting of mosses, lichens and algae,
while seabirds, penguins and seals feed in the surrounding waters.
From north to south the main and some minor islands of the South Shetlands
* 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
* 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.)