Cape Shirreff, a small peninsula located on Livingston Island, is an oasis for Antarctic fauna where different types of birds, penguins, seals and sea lions coexist.
For decades, Chilean and American scientists have spent long periods in this remote Antarctic site located at 62 degrees latitude south, aiming to study species and try to decipher the effects of climate change.
«Cape Shirreff is like an oasis where many species coexist. This gives us the opportunity not only to study each of the animals but also to interact with each other,» says marine biologist Renato Borrás.
This frosty tongue of about three kilometers long and a half wide houses communities of penguins chinstrap and papua, as well as seabirds such as giant petrels, seagulls and skuas.
It is also populated by four of the five types of seals in Antarctica. Dozens of leopard, Weddell, crab and sea elephant seals lie on the inhospitable ash-colored beaches that border the peninsula.
However, the great protagonist is the Antarctic wolf, a species of otárido that practically was in the extinction in century XIX by its singular and precious fur.
Prohibition of hunting in the 1980s allowed the slum population to recover quickly.
Currently, Cape Shirreff is the refuge of the largest colony of Antarctic fur seals in the South Shetland Islands and hosts thousands of this species.
The great biodiversity that colonizes that portion of land was the reason why the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty declared it as an area specially protected and restricted to tourism.
«It is fascinating that the enormous complexity of the Antarctic ecosystem can be studied in such a small place,» says Borrás.
In this small peninsula is the Chilean base Guillermo Mann and the American Shirreff, who each year shelter for three or four months a dozen scientists who defy the cold temperatures and gusty wind to be able to carry out their investigations.
Although it is not known exactly what pushes the animals to gather in that piece of land, scientists estimate that the geography of the place and the distribution of krill could be decisive.
«In addition to being a feast for animals, the geography of the Cape makes it one of the favorite places for reproduction and breeding of mammals,» explains the marine biologist.
For three years, this doctoral student from the Universidad Católica de Chile has moved to the Chilean base during the austral summer season to study the behavior of the Antarctic fur seal colony.
Its aim is to determine if this mammal is prepared to deal with climate change that especially affects the Antarctic Peninsula.
This region, the most northerly of the continent, is one of the places on the planet that has experienced the most intense impacts of climate change.
Over the last 50 years, the temperature has risen by 6 degrees Celsius, a rate of increase six times higher than average global warming, according to data from the National Science Foundation of the United States.
«In addition to an oasis, this place is a natural laboratory for scientists, because it allows us to study how these species respond to such extreme changes,» adds the researcher.
The western part of the Antarctic peninsula, where a year ago reached 17.5 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded on the white continent, has already suffered the disappearance of seven large ice sheets.
The melting of these frozen platforms has a direct impact on the Antarctic ecosystem as it hinders the growth of algae from which krill is fed.
The decline in krill-base trophic chain and the staple food of numerous Antarctic species – could have catastrophic ecological consequences and endanger populations of penguins and seals.
The species that live in Cape Shirreff, located in the middle of the area that has changed more rapidly in recent years due to climate change, today deal with climatic scenarios similar to those that could occur in other areas of the continent in the future.
Hence Borrás stresses the importance of «preserving this natural laboratory» and «increasing scientific efforts» to try to decipher the consequences of the advance of climate change.
«This place is like a window into the future. Understanding what happens here can help us predict what will happen in other parts of the planet tomorrow,» he concluded.