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

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.

Which major powers were among the original signers?

The United States and the Soviet Union, both of which have potentially large claims in Antarctica. Several European powers - Britain, France, Belgium, and Norway - are among the original 12. Japan is there, as well as the countries you would logically expect in the Southern Hemisphere - Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Is a political drama shaping up, as nations that so far have not been part of the process press to participate?

That is exactly what's happening. Antarctica's mineral resources are all extremely iffy. Nonetheless, the fact that it is unclear who owns them, the fact that the claims issue was never resolved and probably never will be, and the fact that in many minds these must be international resources, has raised world interest in them.

Even though we may never develop Antarctic minerals - or certainly maybe not until the next century - and even though any offshore oil development is at least 10 years away, both the Antarctic Treaty nations and the outside world are becoming deeply interested in the disposition of these minerals. This interest is strong among developing nations, which previously have played no role in Antarctica.

Currently the treaty parties are negotiating to agree on a regime which would help to decide whether Antarctic minerals are ever to be developed, and if so, what environmental, legal, and financial arrangements should be put in place.

What is the US position in these negotiations?

Main goal of the United States is to keep Antarctica peaceful. It therefore favors upholding the Antarctic Treaty even past 1991, when it may be reviewed. Anticipating that the subject of Antarctic resources might become extremely controversial, either in the United Nations or within the treaty group itself, the US has pressed to get resource regimes negotiated.

What is the forum of the negotiations?

So far, the United Nations has played no direct role in Antarctic affairs. Over the years, in fact, the treaty powers have discouraged such UN activity. Treaty members feel they have an excellent system of administration to deal with expeditions, science, environmental protection, and now to negotiate the very delicate question of resources.

In September 1983, however, Malaysia - claiming to speak on behalf of the developing world - moved to put the subject of Antarctica on the United Nations agenda. It has now been inscribed, but will not be discussed by the General Assembly as a whole. It was referred to the committee on disarmament.

Is the continent being drawn into the so-called North-South dialogue, between rich and developing nations?

That is the $64,000 question in Antarctic politics today. Several years ago many observers believed that Antarctica would become a football in the confrontation between the South, or developing world, and the rich industrial nations. Now, however, something very interesting has started to evolve. Several major developing countries - some in the Latin bloc, plus India and China - have expressed interest in joining the Antarctic Treaty. Several Latin nations have very recently joined as ''acceding powers'' to the treaty. They agree to abide by its terms, but cannot vote, because they don't have scientific activities in Antarctica. So these developing countries are inside the tent, instead of standing outside and throwing stones at it. In September, as I have said, two leading developing nations - India and Brazil - became voting members. China is not yet an acceding party, but has expressed interest in doing scientific research in Antarctica and cooperating with the nations that are there.

So now, you see, there is a wholly different pattern taking shape, with some developing countries being part of the Antarctic Treaty club and others outside it. It will be very interesting to see how all of this plays, both within the treaty group and at the UN.

Is there a Reagan administration policy on this, or are the negotiations so long-range that one speaks of US interests?

US interests and US policy for the region have been remarkably consistent. There wasn't much change from the Carter administration to the Reagan administration.

So at least there is a chance, based on recent developments, that we will not get into the sterility that has marked the overall North-South dialogue?

If negotiations within the treaty group on minerals, and if discussion in the UN, proceed in a constructive manner, it is possible that the Antarctic forum would result in a mutual arrangement of interests between North and South. The Antarctic case makes clear that developing countries are not all birds of one feather. Some are rather rich and scientifically advanced. Others simply are not in a position to mount Antarctic scientific programs.

Let's turn to the question of resources. I'd like to start with fresh water.

Antarctica contains 90 percent of the world's ice. It's one big ice cube, or rather several ice cubes stuck together. Off this giant ice cube, several little ice cubes drop. This is called calving. These large Antarctic icebergs drift northward with the prevailing current. People over the years have suggested lassoing one of these big bergs and towing it, say, to Baja California, to supply the fresh-water needs of southern California for some time. The papers that I have read on this make it sound rather speculative. If you were actually to tow a berg, you would cross the oceanic boundary that defines the Antarctic region. This barrier is not only turbulent, but marks the transition between cold water around Antarctica and warmer waters. Then the famous bottom of the iceberg starts to melt and becomes irregular in shape. I gather that the structure of the iceberg would then become unstable and start to roll, because the bottom part would be eaten away.

What about oil?

Antarctic oil on the continent would probably be extremely hard to explore for, because this ice sheet is many thousands of feet thick and no one has a practical way to punch through it and work underneath.

But Antarctica does have several enormous continental shelves, some of them larger than parts of Europe. These shelves have been surveyed in a very minimal fashion, but enough to show that there are several kilometers of sedimentary rock on them. Several countries - Japan, Norway, West Germany, and the Soviet Union - have taken some seismic surveys to try to determine the depth of that sedimentary rock and what its oil potential is. The potential is not known at this time and the engineering for extracting the oil in ice-clogged waters is probably several years away.

What about other minerals?

Antarctica was long known to have large reserves of coal. But the coal is low grade and not of sufficient value to mine and transport far across oceans. If coal is ever mined in Antarctica, it will probably be to fuel local power plants. Other minerals are of possible interest. There is a geologic formation called the layered intrusion which has not yet been drilled. But comparable layered intrusions elsewhere in the world, notably in the veldt of South Africa and in Sudbury, Ontario, have extremely rich layers of metals - platinum, gold, and the like. If the Antarctic complex of this kind is found to have very rich deposits, then conceivably in the future mining it could be economical.

Is there a striking difference between the difficulty of getting mineral resources out of Antarctica and exploiting the living, or animal, resources of the continent?

Yes. Already Antarctica's most immediate resource is being exploited and has been for some time. This is a species of crustacean called the Antarctic krill, which swarm near the surface in offshore waters and are extremely easy to catch. Any ordinary distant water trawler with large nets can go to the Antarctic and scoop up tons of these protein-rich crustaceans. The West Germans have hauled many tons in a matter of minutes.

Krill is a principal food for baleen whales. If there is increasing exploitation of the krill, will this pose a danger to already depleted whale populations?

This has been a deep concern of Antarctic scientists for many years. The whale populations were decimated during the era of Antarctic whaling and are only now starting to recover. If you start taking way the whales' principal food , particularly from the areas which are most rich in the food - that is, the feeding grounds on which the whales depend - you might retard the recovery of the whales.

The Antarctic treaty powers, having been apprised of this by their scientists many years ago, negotiated a separate treaty governing krill fishing. This has just entered into force.

The International Whaling Commission has a great deal of difficulty in enforcing its decisions on the limitation of whaling. What hope do we have that the krill treaty will fare better?

The difficulty is going to be in measuring the krill populations, because these creatures are highly mobile and are found all around the Antarctic continent, with concentrations in certain areas. . . . Remember that the ocean around Antarctica contains no less than one-fifth of the world's ocean water by volume.

The new treaty is different from most previous fishing agreements, as well as from the whaling agreement, in that the participants agree to protect the entire Antarctic marine ecosystem. The agreement is not limited to dealing with one species. This means that in order to detect harm to the whales, scientists will have to know that the reason whale stocks are at the level they are is because krill are at the level they are. They must further try to determine that any shifts in population levels are the result of man's fishing.

Seals, penguins and other birds, and many marine species such as squid, also depend on these krill. Nobody, for example, has even been able to measure the extent of the squid population. So there is a big scientific challenge.

Is krill used as human food?

The Russians have made it into a paste. They mix it with other ingredients, such as mayonnaise. There are other kinds of krill products, in which the krill are processed much as one might process shrimp. In Japan, where raw fish is popular, krill has been marketed with some success. Krill might become very important if it were simply ground up and used as a protein-rich meal for animals.

Do we draw any lessons from the Falklands war, so far as Antarctica is concerned?

I think the main lesson of the Falklands war was that the Antarctic Treaty is remarkably strong. Argentina was willing to take on Britain, but unwilling to trespass with its warships in the demilitarized Antarctic Treaty area. . . . Demilitarization of that part of the planet is probably the most important contribution that Antarctic diplomacy can make.

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