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Signy Research Station

Position: Latitude 60°43' S, Longitude 45°36' W, Factory Cove, Borge Bay.
Purpose: Penguin, seabird & seal biology, limnology and terrestrial biology related to the southern ocean ecosystems and climate change, long-term monitoring in particular for the Committee for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
Occupied: 18 March 1947 to present. From 1996 as a summer only station.

Signy Research Station

Location: Signy Island is one of the South Orkney Islands, situated in the Southern Ocean to the north of the Weddell Sea, and approximately 900km south-west of South Georgia (see map below). The island falls just south of the limit of the Antarctic Treaty area (in many publications the position is quoted as that of the BAS station, 60°42' S, 45°36' W).

South Orkney Islands - Map of the South Orkney Islands.

History of the South Orkneys and Signy Station

George Powell and Nathaniel Palmer, British and American sealers, discovered the island group in 1821. Powell named Coronation Island to celebrate the crowning of George IV. Six days later, and working independently, the islands were also sighted my Michael McLeod. A few years later, Matthew Brisbane, as part of an expedition led by James Weddell, surveyed the south coast of Coronation Island and discovered Signy, although he did not name the island.

Visitors to the islands were rare until 1902 when the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, led by William Bruce, established a base on Laurie Island. However, in 1904 the British government declined to support the expedition and the base was handed over to the Argentinians who have remained there ever since in what is now known as Orcadas Station.

Whaling started in the South Orkney Islands in 1907-08. In 1912-13, as part of a survey of the area, Petter Sørlle, captain of the whale catcher Paal, named Signy after his wife and a number of the surrounding islands after his daughters.

Scientific research was started on Signy Island in 1947 when a three-man team occupied a site in Factory Cove above the old whaling station. A new hut (Tønsberg House) was built in 1955 on the site of the whaling station.

Administration and Status

Signy Station lies within British Antarctic Territory (BAT) and as a consequence is administered as part of BAT.


The weather on Signy is greatly affected by ice. In winter pack ice from the Weddell Sea moves nothwards and surrounds the South Orkney Islands and fast ice forms in the areas of water between the pack. As a result, Signy is effectively attached to the Antarctic continent and the weather assumes a more continental aspect than would be expected from the island's location, with low temperatures (record minimum -39.3°C) and relatively clear skies. Icebergs remain in the area all year and remnants of pack ice can be expected at any time during the summer.
RRS James Clark Ross arrives to open the 'summer only' Research Station at Signy
During the summer, the pack ice retreats to the Weddell Sea, and Signy assumes a typical maritime climate. Weather patterns are determined by a series of depressions that pass north-east from the Antarctic Peninsula. These bring warm, wet conditions and are accompanied by much low cloud (the infamous "Signy mank"). Summer air temperatures are generally positive (record maximum 19.8°C), although sudden falls in temperature can occur throughout the summer (-7°C has been recorded in January).

Being north of the Antarctic circle, Signy is never subject to 24 hr days or nights. The Sun is below the horizon for a minimum of 4-5 hrs at mid-summer, although a twilight persists throughout the night close to the solstice. Cloud cover is over 80% in summer and rain may fall at any time, although this is rarely heavy. Total annual sun is only 14% of possible. However, bright, sunny ("dingle") days can occur, particularly in November and December. Signy is situated on the edge of the 'ozone-hole', and increased levels of UV light can be experienced from October to December.

Signy is extremely windy. The prevailing wind is westerly, averages about 14 knots, and often exceeds the boating limit of 25 knots. Gales are recorded on about 60 days each year. An extreme gust of 115 knots has been recorded. Moving west from Signy, there is no landfall until the South Orkneys are re-encountered having travelled around the world, therefore the island is exposed to any weather approaching from the west.

Meteorological records were kept by professional meteorologists from 1947-69 and by station volunteers from 1969-95.


Approximately half the island is covered by a permanent ice-cap, although the highest point, Tioga Hill, is a rock outcrop in the middle of the ice. The ice-cap descends to the sea via two glaciers; the McLeod is by far the largest and terminates in an ice-front along a large part of the south coast, the Orwell is much smaller and terminates in Shallow Bay to the east. The east and west coasts are generally ice-free during summer. The glaciers and ice fields on Signy are in a period of retreat as a result of rising temperatures, and new areas of rock are being exposed every year.

The rest of the Island is covered in lakes, of which there are 16 and snow free ground in summer (which includes steep mountain slopes, mud flats as well as higher ground with extensive moss banks).

Looking across Cemetery Bay, Three Lakes Valley and onto Robin Peak from Rusty Bluff

Fauna and Flora

Botany: The flora of Signy Island is largely cryptogamic. Only two flowering plants are found: the Antarctic hairgrass and the Antarctic pearlwort. Both of these are restricted in distribution, usually being confined to sheltered north-facing slopes. The dominant plants are mosses (c. 50 species), liverworts (c. 12 species) and lichens (c. 120 species). Algae and cyanobacteria may also be found in wetter areas.

Antarctic pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis , with very long flower stalks

Large moss banks occur on lowland sites. These may be up to 2 m thick and 5000 years old. However, many moss banks have been destroyed by fur seals and these mosses have been replaced by sheets of the green algae Prasiola.

Terrestrial Zoology: There are no indigenous terrestrial vertebrates on Signy Island. The soils and vegetation are colonized by large numbers of invertebrates. The most numerous of the larger invertebrates are the springtails and mites, of which, the latter is predatory and represents the top of the terrestrial food web.

In addition, there are unknown numbers of species of smaller invertebrates such as protozoa, nematodes and tardigrades.

Marine Predators

The underwater habitats around Signy consist of both hard and soft bottom areas. Marine life is plentiful, particularly on rock faces that are sheltered from ice-scouring. Amphipods, anemones, sea squirts, tube worms, brachipods, limpets, starfish, sponges and sea cucumbers are especially common. Large numbers of fish are also found at some sites.

Seals: A number of species of seal occur around Signy Island. Weddell seals pup on the sea-ice in winter, and may be seen on ice rafts around the Island during the summer. Elephant seals pup in early spring and form large pods on some beaches during the summer. Leopard seals haul out onto ice floes, usually individually and may be seen hunting around penguin colonies. crabeater seals are rare in summer, but may be seen on ice floes. All these are 'true seals'.

Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in a wallow on Signy Island. Elephant seals are highly thigmotatic on land and are often found in large groups literally lying on top of each other. They have to come ashore to moult, and it is thought that they may form these groups to reduce heat loss.

The only 'eared seal' seen on Signy Island is the Antarctic fur seal. The population at Signy has been increasing rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s and there are now over 20,000 on the Island. Most of these are young, non-breeding males, although a few femailes and pups are seen each year.

Seabirds: There are three main species of penguin that breed on Signy Island, in increasing order of abundance; the Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap penguin. In addition, a few breeding pairs of Macaroni penguins may be found each year, and odd sightings of individual King and Emperor penguins have been made (the latter usually only in winter).

Twelve other species of bird breed on Signy Island: Southern Giant petrel, Cape petrel, Snow petrel, Antarctic prion, Wilson's Storm petrel, Blue-eyed shag, Snowy sheathbill, Brown skua, South Polar skua, Dominican/Kelp gull, Antarctic tern and Black-bellied Storm petrel. In addition, the Antarctic fulmar breeds on nearby islands and is regulalrly observed. Various visitors and vagrants (now numbering 27) have been recorded at different times, of which the most common are the Black-browed albatross and the Antarctic petrel in spring.

Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) in this case seen with a very light plumage.         Greater or Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis alba), the only land bird to survive in the Antarctic. Most sheathbills migrate to the Falkland Islands or South America for the winter.

Scientific Research

CCAMLR long-term penguin monitoring programme: The purpose of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Ecosystem Monitoring Programme (CEMP) is to monitor the effects of fishing on both harvested species (target species) and the dependent species (predators). Such monitoring is considered important to regulates the commercial harvesting of Antarctic marine living resources in accordance with the 'ecosystem approach' embodied in Article II of CCAMLR. Specifically, CCAMLR set up CEMP in 1985 to:

a)  Detect and record significant changes in critical components of the marine ecosystem within the Convention Area, to serve as a basis for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources; and

b)  Distinguish between changes due to harvesting of commercial species and changes due to environmental variability, both physical and biological.

Long-term penguin-monitoring is carried out at Signy as part of CEMP. This work focuses on the three species of penguin that breed on the Island (Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo) and each season research is conducted on the birds in order to measure their population size, breeding success and diet compostion. All of this data is then reported to CCAMLR.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) provide a real wildlife spectacle on the island of South Georgia, where 400,000 pairs breed.  These birds were photographed at Royal Bay, South Georgia.

Japanese collaboration: As part of a collaborative study with the Japanese National Institute for Polar Research, scientists are looking at how marine predators forage in relation to variability in the marine environment. This includes exploring foraging behaviour in relation to prey type, to physiological and biomechanical constraints such as changes in buoyancy with depth, and to life history strategies. These studies will provide new information about diving, swimming and flight behaviour of marine predators at a fine temporal scale and help us to understand how predators make their living in the Antarctic.

Giant squid found on a beach at Signy Island.

Dutch collaboration: The Netherlands Polar Programme has been working at Signy for a number of years since the early 1990s, in collaboration with members of the BAS core science programme (currently BIOFLAME). Over the last 5 years their research has focussed on identifying and understanding the likely consequences of the rapid rates of regional climate change currently being experienced along the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Arc. To do this, they utilise a two-pronged comparative approach. First, by establishing monitoring sites (including at Signy) along a latitudinal/environmental gradient between the Falkland Islands and Rothera, and then comparing analogous biological features at each, they take advantage of the opportunity provided by a "natural experiment". Second, at each of their monitoring locations a series of long-term environmental manipulation experiments have been established using 'open-topped chambers' (OTCs) - these were developed for the international ITEX programme in northern hemisphere boreal regions, and are a simple but effective and proven means of changing some environmental variables in a manner similar to the predictions of current climate models, thereby providing an experimental approach to modelling climate change.

Malaysian collaboration: Since 2005, BAS has developed a collaboration with a research group led by Dr Irene Tan (University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur) under the Malaysian Antarctic Programme. This draws on the specific expertise in microbial diversity and molecular biology of this research group, and has so far involved two Malaysian scientists sampling in a range of natural (undisturbed) and disturbed habitats on Signy Island over the last two field seasons. These samples have been returned to Malaysia where they are currently being processed. In addition to the direct interaction, this collaboration is in part planned to assist Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme (MARP) in 'capacity building', i.e. gaining experience of Antarctic operations and fieldwork practicalities.

Microclimate monitoring: Microclimate records exist for various sites on Signy Island going back over 25 years. Much of the data has been collected to support specific projects but now only one station is installed on Jane Col, one of the more extreme habitats on the Island with only sparse vegetation comprising mosses and lichens. This type of site is expected to show the greatest response to predicted climate change.

The present microclimate station, installed in January 2007, transmits data back to BAS in Cambridge once per week via the Iridium satellite network. The station follows a standard design similar to others already installed on Anchorage Island close to the BAS station at Rothera and further South at Mars Oasis and Coal Nunatak. The array of sensors has been chosen to meet the demands of terrestrial biologists studying biodiversity and the physiology of plants and animals. The station records the temperature at 4 depths in the soil (0, 5, 10, 15cm), air temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, air pressure and snow depth. The station is part of the Long Term Monitoring Studies (LTMS) of BAS. Data is available on request from the Data Manager at BAS.

Station Facilities

Signy research station presently consists of buildings in Factory Cove constructed or refurbished as part of the 1995-96 rebuild.

Signy station is designed to house eight people, although this may be increased to nine for very short periods by the use of a fold-down bed in the medical room. The main building, Sorlle House, includes living, accommodation, laboratories, communal showers and toilet facilities and other buildings on site provide storage and provision of services such as power and water production. In addition there are four small huts around the Island.

A base commander and facilities engineer form the core of the support on Signy Station. In addition, most seasons a specialist field safety person is on hand to support field science work. Specialist maintenance is undertaken by technical staff who are brought in as required according to the season's maintenance tasks.

Generators at Signy Research Station                                                   Taking the winter covers from the windows of Signy Research Station during the opening/first visit of the summer - Taking the winter covers from the windows of Signy Research Station during the opening/first visit of the summer