Environmental monitoring on King George Island

The Fildes Region is subject to high pressure of use. Environmental monitoring helps to show its effects.Click to enlarge
The Fildes Region is subject to high pressure of use. Environ. monitoring helps to show its effects

Forschungsstation auf Fildes Halbinsel, Antarktis

Source: Christina Braun/FSU Jena

King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands, and because of its accessibility from South America, now hosts 14 research stations and field huts of about one dozen nations. Construction and operation of these stations requires a great deal of logistical activities which impact the environment. Environmental monitoring will help to detect and solve problems.

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The Fildes Peninsula Region – nature under threat, stuck between logistics and research

King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands and lies nearly 900 kilometres south of Tierra del Fuego. The southwestern end of the island, known as the Fildes Peninsula, is rocky and ice-free.

The Fildes Region has the highest density of stations in all of the Antarctic but also enjoys a relatively high degree of biodiversity. Poor coordination of scientific, logistical and tourism activities on the Fildes Peninsula, which has had considerable environmental impact until recently, was the reason for the many years of efforts at international level to improve management of the area. Five stations and four field huts (operated by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Russia, and Uruguay) located on an area of about 30 km², in addition to a number of other human activities, exert high pressure on the region. The Fildes Peninsula and offshore Ardley Island are used intensively for scientific and logistical activities and are also increasingly exposed to tourism. Literal waste dumps have begun to grow, with serious damage to sensitive vegetation and disturbance of the landscape. Sea birds have been displaced from their breeding sites: the Southern giant petrel in particular has migrated away from some of its traditional breeding sites.

Map of Maxwell Bay Region
Map of Maxwell Bay Region
Source: Christina Braun/FSU Jena

Is monitoring and management the solution?

Its relatively high level of biodiversity and significant fossil finds in the region have led to the designation of two Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) on the Fildes Peninsula. The objective of current efforts is to designate the region as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) in order to better coordinate local activities and make them more environmentally friendly.

The Institute for Ecology at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency, started work on the research project Risk assessment for the Fildes Peninsula and Ardley Island, and development of management plans for their designation as Specially Protected or Specially Managed Areas in 2003. The project collected data over a period of three years (2003-2006) and proposed measures whose objective is to manage research and tourism in the heavily frequented Fildes Region in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible.

Recent research data from 2008-2012 which is documented in the polar researchers' second report indicates that construction activities on King George Island are an additional pressure on the Antarctic environment. Construction as well as flight and ship traffic severely disrupt the environment, including disturbance of breeding penguins, destruction of egg nests, and contamination of soil and water with oil. Logistical activities have even affected the region's two protected areas.

Concurrent discussions among the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties at international level have resulted in a number of talks and workshops in recent years. UBA and Chile have been acting as head and coordinator of the International Working Group for the Fildes Peninsula Region of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP).


Environmental monitoring in Maxwell Bay

The Fildes Region and its density of research stations is part of the area around Maxwell Bay between King George Island and Nelson Island, where further stations are located (Carlini/Argentina and Dallmann/Germany, as well as King Sejong/South Korea).

Current activities have been extended across further parts of Maxwell Bay to enable environmental monitoring on a larger scale. UBA's research project Monitoring of the consequences of climate change, science, logistic and tourism on the assets to be protected of the ice-free areas of the Maxwell Bay (King George Island, Antarctica) includes the following tasks:

  • Survey of numbers and mapping of current prevalence and distribution of breeding and resting birds, tracking the breeding success of penguins, giant petrels and skuas
  • Survey of numbers of seals
  • Mapping and recording of glacial retreat areas
  • Identification of occurrence of non-native species  

The German project researchers are working closely with scientists from other nations, including South Korea. Cooperation includes exchange of data or joint fieldwork.