Monitoring Maxwell Bay

Research project: Monitoring the climate-induced changes of terrestrial and marine ecosystems in the Maxwell Bay (King George Island, Antarctic)

Research project: Terrestrial biological monitoring on the Fildes Peninsula (Maxwell Bay, Antarctic)​

Project period: 2021 – 2024

Scientific staff: Christina Braun, Hannes Grämer

The Fildes Region (62°08’ - 62°14’ S, 59°02’ - 58°51’ W), consisting of the Fildes Peninsula, Ardley Island and adjacent islands within 0.5 km off the coast, is located at the south-western part of King George Island, South Shetland Islands, and represents one of the largest ice-free areas in the maritime Antarctic. This region is characterised by a comparatively high biodiversity. At the same time, this area is home to the highest density of scientific stations used all year round in the whole of the Antarctic. Due to the proximity to South America and the existence of an airstrip, the area represents a major logistical hub for the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Diverse activities in the fields of research and logistics, but also tourism, are putting a considerable strain on the area. Spatial and temporal overlaps of these activities are leading to a conflict of interests between the various user groups and the nature conservation and environmental protection measures according to international law (cf. Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty).

Resulting from the great need for research into the Fildes Peninsula area two research projects were conducted in collaboration with the GermanEnvironment Agency, which results represents the first comprehensive assessment of the environmental situation. Furthermore predictions for future developments in the Fildes Peninsula Region were made (Peter et al. 2008External link, 2013External link). The results are of high importance for the aimed continuation of the discussion process towards a solution of the environmental problems by an efficient management of all human activities in the region. The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties decide on the implementation of management measures, e.g. by designation of an area as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA), during their annual meeting (ATCM). As this is a protracted process and the availability of current data is obligatory, consecutive research is required.

Forschungsstationen der Fildes Region
Forschungsstationen der Fildes Region
Image: Christina Braun

In this context and due to the great importance of long-term monitoring programs, especially in areas of rapid climatic changes and with a high risk of danger for the protected assets of the region, another research project is being carried out. Between 2012 and 2018, a comprehensive monitoring of the consequences of local climate changes on the protected assets of the ice-free areas of Maxwell Bay (King George Island, Antarctica) was carried out (Braun et al. 2017External link, 2020External link, 2022External link). The monitoring included the standardized recording of the fauna of sea birds and seals in the Fildes region as well as the expansion of the breeding bird recording in selected areas of Maxwell Bay. For the analysis of long-term trends in bird and seal populations, extensive data from numerous, previously unpublished expedition reports by German scientists from the 1980s and from all available literature were used in addition to our own surveys. On the basis of these data it became clear that the majority of seabird species with regard to their breeding pair numbers depend primarily on natural environmental factors, while others react more strongly to anthropogenic influences. In addition, the documentation of glacier retreat areas of selected areas of Maxwell Bay was continued on the basis of aerial and satellite images with regard to regional climatic development and colonization by fauna and flora.

The continuation of this monitoring takes place in the context of the current project "Terrestrial biological monitoring on the Fildes Peninsula (Maxwell Bay, Antarctic)​". Using various parameters (e.g. breeding success of selected species), local population developments and possible correspondences with regional trends, particularly as a result of climate change, are examined. In addition, the introduction of non-native animal and plant species and the retreat of glaciers are documented. Another aspect is the recording of the distribution and the extent of marine litter and with regard to effects on seabirds in the study area with regard to effects on seabirds in the study area. Furthermore, a future prognosis for the development of the Antarctic biota and for the further development of efficient environmental monitoring will be made.

Ansicht Fildes Peninsula im Sommer
Ansicht Fildes Peninsula im Sommer
Image: Christina Braun

Data collection during three Antarctic field seasons (December – February 2018/19 & 2020/21)

  • survey of breeding distribution and breeding pair numbers of following species
    • gentoo, Adélie and chinstrap penguin
    • southern giant petrel
    • skuas (south polar and brown skua, hybrids and mixed pairs)
    • kelp gull
    • cape petrel
    • Antarctic tern
    • light-mantled sooty albatross
    • snowy sheathbill
    • record of all migrant and vagrant bird species
  • monthly census of local seal population
  • survey of seal reproduction sites and pup numbers of southern elephant seal, Weddell seal and Antarctic fur seal (if applicable also leopard seal, crabeater seal), including information from wintering station personnel
  • mapping of breeding birds in further ice-free areas of the Maxwell Bay
  • record of introduced non-native species, control of known sites with introduced species
  • continuation of recent glacier retreat zones in selected sites of the Maxwell Bay using satellite images, supplemented by on-site mapping
  • survey of the distribution of marine debris on selection part of the coastline in the Fildes Region
  • assessment of the influence of marine debris and terrestrial waste on seabirds and seals
Image: Vaclav Pavel

Project-related Publications

Braun, C., Grämer, H., Peter, H.-U. (2022): Monitoring der klimabedingten Veränderungen terrestrischer und mariner Ökosysteme in der Maxwell Bay (Antarktis)External link. Im Auftrag des Umweltbundesamts, Texte 269/2022, Dessau-Roßlau.

Braun, C., Rümmler, M.-C., Esefelfd, J. Peter, H.-U. (2020): Überwachung der klimabedingten Veränderungen terrestrischer und mariner Ökosysteme in der Maxwell Bay (King George Island, Antarktis)External link. On behalf of the German Environment Agency.

Braun, C., Hertel, F., Peter, H.-U. (2017): Environmental Management - The Fildes Peninsula Paradigm. In: K. Dodds, Hemmings, A.D. & Roberts, P. (eds.). Handbook of the Politics of Antarctica, Edward Elgar Publishing, 351-367.

Braun, C., Esefeld, J., Peter, H.-U. (2017): Monitoring the consequences of local climate change on the natural resources of the ice-free regions of Maxwell Bay (King George Island, Antarctic).External link On behalf of the German Environment Agency. Texte 26/2017. Dessau-Rosslau.

Braun, C., Mustafa, O., Nordt, A., Pfeiffer, S., Peter, H.-U. (2013): Environmental Situation and Management Challenges for the Fildes Peninsula Region: Book section in: The Future of Antarctica: Human impacts, strategic planning, and values for conservation, Tin, T., Liggett, D., Maher, P., Lamers, M. (eds), Springer, S. 169-191.

Braun, C., Mustafa, O., Nordt, A., Pfeiffer, S., Peter, H.-U. (2013): The current environmental situation and proposals for the management of the Fildes Peninsula Region.External link On behalf of the German Environment Agency, Texte 03/2013, Dessau-Rosslau.

Braun, C., Mustafa, O., Nordt, A., Pfeiffer, S., Peter, H.-U. (2012): Environmental Monitoring and Management Proposals for the Fildes Region (King George Island, Antarctica). Polar Research 31, 1-18.

Peter, H.-U., Büßer, C., Mustafa, O., Pfeiffer, S. (2008): Risk assessment for the Fildes Peninsula and Ardley Island, and the development of management plans for their designation as Antarctic Specially Protected or Specially Managed Areas.External link On behalf of the German Environment Agency, Texte 20/2008, Dessau-Rosslau.