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Antarctica

By Harry B. EllisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 1983



Washington

To most Americans, even the most traveled, Antarctica looms as a misty concept - dark, cold, a vast emptiness dotted with scattered scientific stations.

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So it is. But, says Deborah Shapley, the continent is unique - a place where nations of the world, including the United States and the Soviet Union, have outlawed weapons and war.

Ms. Shapley, guest scholar at Resources for the Future in Washington, says she hopes the huge ice-bound continent can become a laboratory for cooperation between rich countries and poor in the sharing of resources as yet untapped.

In an interview Ms. Shapley, author of a forthcoming book, ''The Seventh Continent: Antarctica in a Resource Age,'' speaks of an unfolding drama, as nations large and small press to join the ''Antarctic club.''

Her study was sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Excerpts from the interview follow:

What is Antarctica like? What makes this continent unique?

It is an entire continent virtually unknown to man, even 163 years after its discovery by sealers in the early 19th century. Antarctica is as large as the United States and Mexico combined. Ninety-eight percent of it lies under a gigantic icecap. This continent is unique in that its resources are almost untapped. These include minerals that may lie underneath the icecap in the continent itself, plus the possibility of offshore oil, and the very abundant protein-rich krill that swarm in offshore waters. One of the unique features of Antarctica is its peacefulness. It has been governed now in a peaceful fashion for many years, and we hope that current political developments won't disrupt that peace in the future.

What formal administrative entity governs Antarctica?

The continent went through a period of competing national activities in the 1920s, 1930s, and to some extent in the 1940s. Most governments which sponsored expeditions to Antarctica finally decided it would be far too expensive to fight in the cold and dark and in the stormy seas - a very hostile area to get involved in militarily. This peace, which had become a de facto situation, became formalized in 1959 with the conclusion of the Antarctic Treaty - a rather brief document, concluded by 12 nations which had all been there for the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. They discovered during the IGY how to function down there on a cooperative basis, defining science as the chief national and international goal.

What are the main provisions of the treaty?

The treaty lasts in perpetuity though it is due for a review in 1991. The treaty demilitarizes the continent. Military forces can be sent only in support of scientific expeditions. Military maneuvers are forbidden, along with detonation of atomic weapons and storage of radioactive wastes. The treaty also contains a provision for unilateral on-site inspection, the only arms control treaty we have with such a provision.

Scientific expeditions may go anywhere on the continent, so that even though there are vestigial territorial claims - still unresolved, even under the treaty - no one is barred from visiting any part of the continent or the offshore waters.

Are only the signatory powers allowed to operate scientific stations and expeditions?

In theory anyone can do so. But it is very expensive. To be a voting member - or what is called a consultative party under the treaty - a nation has to show substantial scientific interest in the region. The only way the original club of 12 Antarctic Treaty consultative parties can be expanded, is if a nation engages in substantial scientific activity. Since 1961, when the treaty entered into force, there have been four new voting parties. First came Poland in 1977, then West Germany in 1981, and in September 1983 two prominent developing countries - India and Brazil - were admitted.