Banner Image: Leopard seal, Antarctica; Copyright: Stewart McPherson www.britainstreasureislands.com


The British Antarctic Territory is an area of Antarctica that is administered by the United Kingdom in London by staff in the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It consists of all the land (predominantly offshore islands), including the Antarctic Peninsula, south of 60°S latitude and between longitudes 20°W and 80°W, an area of 1,709,400 km2.

Although the area was explored much earlier by adventurous travellers and whalers, the territory was officially formed only in 1962.

NW Antarctic Peninsula. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

NW Antarctic Peninsula. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Also, although the UK claim overlaps with those of Argentina and Chile, the Antarctic Treaty effectively suspends claims and provides an internationally agreed regime for the whole continent, recognising its importance as an area for peace and scientific research. There are no native human inhabitants in BAT and the islands are used mainly to give access to the scientific research stations in the Antarctic – there are two year-round (Halley and Rothera) and one summer-only (Signy) UK research stations here. Many other countries also have research stations in this region, as the Southern Ocean offers unique opportunities for understanding evolution in marine systems.

Cape petrel takes off from the lagoon in Deception Island, South Shetland Islands. Copyright: Dr Mike PienkowskiCape petrel takes off from the lagoon in Deception Island, South Shetland Islands. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The Protocol for the Protection of the Antarctic Environment, enacted as the Antarctic Act 1994, provides a licensing regime for all activities in the Territory by British nationals. This legislation covers also environmental monitoring and impact assessment, waste management, oil spills and protected areas and species. The British Antarctic Territory Strategy sets the main objectives and funding priorities for the territory and is reviewed annually and updated as appropriate.

Antarctic shag brings nesting material from shore and over Adélie penguin colony, NE Antarctic Peninsula.  Copyright: Dr Mike PienkowskiAntarctic shag brings nesting material from shore and over Adélie penguin colony, NE Antarctic Peninsula. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Most of the landmass in the Antarctica is permanently covered with ice. However, life is still present in the 1% of the region that is ice- and snow-free. In these areas, there are large numbers of seals, penguins and birds, as well as a variety of mosses, liverworts, lichens and fungi. According to the British Antarctic Survey, there are, in total, around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, and 300 to 400 species of lichens in the Antarctica. They can tolerate low temperatures and dehydration, being specially adapted to surviving in extreme environments. Trees and shrubs do not grow in these conditions. There are only two species of flowering plants that occur in Antarctica, the Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort. These arise along the warmer parts of the Antarctica Peninsula and in the South Orkney Islands and the South Shetland Islands. Human activities such as whale and seal hunts and the more recent waves of tourists unintentionally carried exotic species into these regions. Invasive species are the biggest threat to the native flora of Antarctica.

The terrestrial fauna of the Antarctic continent is sparse; no higher insects are present, while micro-arthropods are restricted to limited areas of vegetation and (vertebrate) nutrient enrichment. In the most extreme continental cold deserts, simple food webs consist of as few as 1 – 3 nematode species, only one of which may be predatory. These cold desert soils are faunistically the least diverse habitats on Earth.

Chinstrap penguin pair at nest site. Copyright: Dr Mike PienkowskiChinstrap penguin Pygoscelis antarcticus pair at nest site. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

In the surrounding seas, vast quantities of krill provide the basis for rich marine life. This includes whales, seals and very large numbers of birds, especially petrels and penguins, inhabiting the islands and coastal areas of the Peninsula. Adélie and emperor penguins, and Antarctic snow petrels, all breed on the continent itself, and chinstrap, gentoo and macaroni penguins breed on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where conditions are less harsh.

Copyright: Michael Gore FRPS

Adélie penguins dive into the sea.  Copyright: Michael Gore FRPS

Management of commercial fishing is by international agreement through the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Annual meetings of the Treaty and CCAMLR provide a forum for monitoring environmental activities and fishing.

Port Lockroy station. Copyright: Dr Mike PienkowskiPort Lockroy station. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust works to preserve, enhance and promote British heritage to engage, inform and inspire a global audience. It cares for and conserves historic buildings and artefacts in Antarctica, including their flagship historical site, Port Lockroy. For more than a century, Port Lockroy has been a home for explorers, whalers, scientists, and sailors who have made vital contributions to Antarctic history and the harbour, at the meeting point of 3 seaways has become the most popular visitor destination in Antarctica today, complete with museum, shop and post office.

Damoy Hut, the British Antarctic Surveys ice airstrip from about 1973 to 1993. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski
Damoy Hut, the British Antarctic Surveys ice airstrip from about 1973 to 1993, with (below) information sign. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Damoy Hut sign. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

A virtual tour for BAT, outlining its historical and cultural importance is currently under development and will shortly be available here.