United Nations, N.Y. — It is the coldest, windiest, and least accessible of the seven continents. One of its most famous explorers called it ''an awful place.'' Legally, its status is murky. And as for population, it has none - except for a few scientific teams scattered about and large numbers of penguins.
Nevertheless, Antarctica is gaining increasing interest from a number of countries because of suspicions that it could be a goldmine of precious resources. There is so much interest, in fact, that Antarctica may soon become the focus of an international struggle of diplomacy played out at the United Nations.
The questions: Who owns - or who should own - Antarctica? And how should its mineral resources be divided?
In the past, debate over these questions has generally been limited to the 12 signers of the Treaty of Antarctica, which went into effect in 1961 and expires in 1991.
Now, however, the third world is beginning to insist that it have a role in Antarctica, too.
Buoyed by the recent passage of the Law of the Sea Treaty in the UN, several African and Asian nations are asking that the United Nations intervene - a prospect that worries the signatories to the original treaty.
Will this huge land - larger than China, larger than the United States and Mexico together - be carved up into national territories or ruled for and by all nations?
At last fall's UN General Assembly, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatin Ben Muhammad said, ''Now the time has come for the UN to focus its attention to the continent of Antarctica. This land does not legally belong to its discoverers just as the colonialized countries did not belong to the colonial powers.''
As early as 1956, India's permanent representative to the UN, Arthur S. Lall, requested that ''the question of Antarctica be included on the provisional agenda of the General Assembly.'' In 1979 Peru's Alvaro de Soto, now an adviser to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, had warned the 12 nations that had in 1959 signed the Treaty of Antarctica ''not to set aside private hunting grounds in the Antarctic.'' The New Zealand Prime Minister at the time suggested a form of UN trusteeship over Antarctica.
A number of third-world countries (Guinea, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, to name but a few) are indicating a growing interest in the fate of Antarctica. Others are likely to follow suit. It was after all a tiny country, Malta, that first, in 1962, brought up the question of a Law of the Sea Treaty at the UN. Nobody paid much attention to what seemed a cranky idea at the time. Today, 20 years later, the Law of the Sea Treaty has been adopted by a majority of nations and has become international law.
There has been a flurry of scientific interest in Antarctica in the last year or two. Last month Brazil sent two ships equipped for scientific research with great fanfare. India launched an expedition of its own in great secrecy and for 10 days installed a base of its own 60 miles north of the Soviet base of Novolozaresvskaya on Antarctic territory. France is building a landing strip on one of its Antarctic bases (''Terre Adelie'') so that it may fly its scientific personnel there rather than send them by ship. West Germany installed its own Georg von Neumaier base on Antarctica. Even China is showing interest in scientific research regarding that icy continent.
Some analysts here say the attraction felt suddenly and simultaneously for Antarctica by these and other countries may not be purely scientific. Technologies have recently been developed to extract Arctic oil and similiar methods could allow extraction of other minerals in 10 to 15 years. Exploiting Antarctica's mineral resources has become cold reality. By engaging in research, countries want to legitimize their present or future claims on slices of Antarctica, according to a UN official.
In the opinion of geologists, Antarctica holds not only major offshore oil deposits but also deposits of platinum, nickel, copper, chromium, zinc, cobalt, gold, tin, possibly uranium, and certainly the largest coal field in the world. Australian, Canadian, Japanese, American (Gulf Oil, Texaco, Exxon, Atlantic Richfield) companies have already shown interest in obtaining prospecting rights.
When Capt. Robert Scott of Great Britain set foot on Antarctica in 1912, he called it ''an awful place.'' It has little or no daylight for six months of the year. Winds sometimes exceed 200 miles-per-hour.
The first explorers were French: Bouvet de Lozier arrived in 1739, and when Kergulen-Tremarec landed there in 1772, he called it a ''land of desolation.'' Between 1908 and 1943 seven nations (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, the U.K.) made formal territorial claims on Antarctica. Most claims are shaped like slices of a pie. Five claims (Australia, France, Norway, New Zealand, U.K.) are mutually recognized. The claims of the U.K., Chile, and Argentina, however, overlap. Fifteen percent of the continent (the Pacific sector) has not yet been claimed, though it is considered to be potentially the US sector.
Belgium, Japan, South Africa, and the USSR do not formally recognize any claims. The US and the USSR ''reserve their rights.'' The US has rejected all existing claims and is known to favor free access to the whole of Antarctica for itself. Argentina claims that its share, ''Antartida Argentina,'' has been part of the republic since its foundation. Chile traces its claims to sovereignty to the 16th century.
The US has been exploring Antarctica for 150 years. In 1946 it sent the largest historical expedition to Antarctica. Operation Highjump's secret directives were to ''extend US sovereignty over the largest possible area of Antarctica.'' Brazil, Japan, Uruguay, and Norway have also informally laid claims over parts of Antarctica.
In 1959 an Antarctic treaty was signed by 12 countries (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Great Britain, US, USSR). They are called ''consultative members'' of the treaty. Poland later became the 13th member. East Germany, Peru, Brazil, West Germany adhere to the treaty but with ''second-class status'': they don't have voting rights. The treaty essentially demilitarizes Antarctica (''It shall be used for peaceful purposes only,'' says Article I).
But the treaty does not settle Antarctica's legal status and simply freezes the various territorial claims. It does not settle the question of who is to own and to benefit from Antarctic mineral resources. The treaty furthermore does not constitute what is called customary law. It is not binding for nonsignatories. It has no permanent secretariat. Consultative meetings of its members take place every two years in the capitals of member states. They are restricted to the press.
The recently adopted Law of the Sea Treaty regulates the maritime spaces (continental shelf, territorial seas) pertaining to Antarctica but does not bear on the Antarctic territory itself.
''The 1959 Antarctic treaty has no legal value. It reminds one of the 1884 Berlin Treaty by which a handful of European powers carved up Africa in zones of influence for themselves. The world community has yet to settle the true legal status of Antarctica,'' an analyst here says. Official and unofficial claims on Antarctic territory have so far been based on geographical proximity or on scientific research.
The US wants an ''open door'' Antarctic policy allowing free access, irrespective of nationality, to Antarctica's mineral wealth. This would give US corporations, who hold the most advanced technology, a clear advantage. The Soviet position is not clearly defined. The USSR has proposed a moratorium on mineral activities but recently has shown a disposition to discuss a regime. Meanwhile, 20 US environmental and conservation groups have expressed their serious concern with the emerging US position on Antarctica's minerals. They called for a ''world preserve'' for the Antarctic continent prohibiting any mineral exploitation until such a time when resources can be obtained without endangering Antarctica's terrestrial and maritime ecosystem.
So far the 13 members of the exclusive original ''Antarctica club'' have stuck together even though their claims sometimes overlap. Whether they will remain united once they come under strong pressure from the third world is an open question.
Many African nations are expected to challenge the legitimacy of a group in which the only African country represented is South Africa. Brazil can be expected to claim rights not inferior to those of Chile and Argentina. Will India, China, Mexico, and Nigeria agree to be left out?
''Once the third world starts pushing for a 'common heritage' approach to Antarctica, the 1959 treaty may well fall part. Some of its members are likely to be more sensitive than others to the pressure of developing nations,'' a well-placed diplomat says. It took nine years of negotiations for the UN to regulate the seas. It may take it as long to settle the future of Antarctica.
As with the Law of the Sea talks, the world community may split along lines that owe less to ideology than to geography, power, and wealth. ''One thing is sure: Antarctica is a huge bone for the UN to chew on,'' a Western diplomat says.