The surface of the islands is generally low and rocky, with few trees and spare soil. In places cliffs rise above 1,000 ft (305 m). The climate is humid and, despite the northern latitude, rather mild. Oats and barley are the chief crops; fishing and cattle and sheep raising are very important. The region is famous for its knitted woolen goods and for the small, sturdy Shetland ponies originally bred there. With the discovery of North Sea oil in the early 1970s, a major oil terminal was built at Sullom Voe in the north of Mainland. Tourism is also significant.
The Shetlands are known for their ancient relics. Pictish forts are scattered throughout the islands, and a village from the Bronze Age has been unearthed at Jarlshof on Mainland. By the late 9th cent. the islands were occupied by the Norsemen; traces of their speech and customs survive. The Shetlands were not annexed to Scotland until 1472, when the islands were taken over as an unredeemed pledge of King Christian I of Norway and Denmark for the dowry of his daughter, Margaret, who married James III of Scotland.
The Islands have been claimed by the UK since 1908 and are part of British Antarctic Territory since 1962. They are claimed by Chile (since 1940) as part of the Antártica Chilena Province and by Argentina (since 1943) as part of Argentine Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego Province.
There are sixteen research stations to date in different parts of the islands, with Chilean stations being the uttermost in number. Research is often a shared duty of nations, with Chilean-American Shirreff base being an example of this.
The Dutchman Dirck Gerritsz in 1599, or the Spaniard Gabriel de Castilla in 1603 travelled through these Antarctic lands, both of them supposedly sailing south of the Drake Passage in the South Shetland Islands area. In 1818 Juan Pedro de Aguirre obtained permission from the Buenos Aires authorities to install an establishment for sealing on "some of the uninhabited islands near the South Pole".
Captain William Smith in the British merchant brig Williams, while sailing to Valparaiso, Chile in 1819 deviated from his route south of Cape Horn, and on 19 February sighted Williams Point, the northeast extremity of Livingston Island. Smith revisited the South Shetlands, landed on King George Island on 16 October 1819, and claimed possession for Britain. Thus Livingston Island became the first land ever discovered south of the 60th southern latitude.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Navy ship San Telmo sank in September 1819 whilst trying to go through the Drake Passage. Parts of her supposed wreckage were found months later by sealers on the north coast of Livingston Island.
Already on 15 November 1819 the American agent in Valparaíso, Jeremy Robinson informed the US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Smith’s discovery and Bransfield’s forthcoming mission, and suggested the dispatch of a US government ship to explore the islands where "new sources of wealth, power and happiness would be disclosed and science itself be benefited thereby."
The discovery of the islands attracted British and American sealers. The first sealing ship to operate in the area was the brig Espirito Santo chartered by British merchants in Buenos Aires. The ship arrived at Rugged Island off Livingston Island, where its British crew landed on Christmas Day 1819, and claimed the islands for King George III; a narrative of the events was published by the brig's master Joseph Herring in the July 1820 edition of the Imperial Magazine. The Espirito Santo was followed from the Falkland Islands by the American brig Hersilia commanded by Captain James Sheffield (with second mate Nathaniel Palmer), the first American sealer in the South Shetlands.
The first overwintering in Antarctica took place on the South Shetlands, when at the end of the 1820/21 summer season eleven British men from the ship Lord Melville failed to leave King George Island, and successfully survived throughout the austral winter to be rescued at the beginning of the next season.
Having circumnavigated the Antarctic continent, the Russian Antarctic expedition of Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev arrived to the South Shetlands in January 1821. The Russians surveyed the islands and named them, landing on both King George Island and Elephant Island. While sailing between Deception and Livingston islands, Bellingshausen was visited by Nathaniel Palmer, master of the American brig Hero, who informed him of the activities of dozens of American and British sealing ships in the area.
The name "New South Britain" was used briefly, but was soon changed to South Shetland Islands (in reference to the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland). The name South Shetland Islands is now established in international usage. Both sets of islands actually lie at a similar distance from the South Pole and North Pole respectively, but the South Shetlands are much colder (see below).
Seal hunting and whaling took place on the islands in the 19th and early 20th century. From 1908 the islands were governed as part of the Falkland Islands Dependency but the islands have only been occupied since the establishment of a scientific research station in 1944. The archipelago, together with the nearby Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, is an increasingly popular tourist destination during the austral summer.
The South Shetlands consist of 11 major islands and several minor ones, totalling 3687 square kilometres of land area. Between 80 and 90 percent of the land area is permanently glaciated. The highest point on the island chain is Mount Foster in Imeon Range on Smith Island at 2105 metres above sea level.
The islands have experienced measurable glacier retreat in recent years but despite this they remain more than 80% snow and ice covered throughout the summer. The climate is cloudy and humid all year round and very strong westerly winds blow at all seasons. Some of the sunniest weather is associated with outbreaks of very cold weather from the south in late winter and spring.
Mean summer temperatures are only about 1.5°C and those in winter are about -5°C. The effect of the cold ocean tends to keep summer temperatures low and winter temperatures from falling as low as they do inland to the south.
From north to south the main and some minor islands of the South Shetlands are:
(The Russian names above are historical, and no longer the official Russian names of the relevant islands.)
Several nations maintain research stations on the Islands: