SUPERLATIVES abound in Antarctica: It is the world's highest, driest, coldest, and windiest continent.
Fog and snow obscured the landscape as our ship worked its way through the Antarctic Peninsula islands. As the Polar Duke arrived in Arthur Harbor, a blinding polar sun slid from behind the clouds, sending a lazer of light through millennia-old electric-blue ice.
Later that day, hurricane-force winds and blasts of snow buffeted Palmer Station, one of the three main United States research facilities here, for 14 hours. Mother Nature was helping make a point about the difficulties of conducting research here on ``the ice,'' as old hands refer to Antarctica.
As guests of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), a Monitor reporting team recently visited the station, one piece of a substantial investment the US makes to keep scientific research operations running in Antarctica year round.
Since the entire enterprise of living and working here revolves around science, and because perilous conditions foster cooperation, political rivalries among scientists from different nations have historically taken a back seat.
In recent years, however, Antarctica has become a stage for a new conflict - between scientists and environmentalists.
The environmentalist camp holds that Antarctica should be maintained as an untouched preserve, the only place on Earth humans have not ruined. Scientists at the NSF, which runs the US program here, contend that limited local environmental impacts have to be expected.
``Antarctica is held on a pedestal by the environmental community as something almost bigger than life, bigger than reality,'' says Cornelius Sullivan, director of the NSF's Office of Polar Programs. ``There is a danger that a swing of the pendulum in the direction of protection could be so extreme that it does have a negative impact on the US research program.''
But Susan Sabella, Greenpeace's Antarctica specialist, says that ``there should not be a conflict between science and protecting the environment. It's just that in the past, and at some bases currently, the infrastructure that supports the science is having an impact on the environment.
People in both camps agree that Antarctica is an ideal natural laboratory to gauge the effects humans have had on the global environment. Many scientists view Antarctica as an icy crucible that can function as an early-warning system for Earth.
But the ``footprints'' left by early explorers, whalers, sealers, and even scientists on Antarctica have been damaging. The extreme cold has preserved almost everything left behind since active study of the continent began in the 1890s.
About 8,000 people live on Antarctica during its summer season, though the population dwindles to around 1,000 during winter. Winds here have been clocked at 200 m.p.h. About 40 research bases are scattered mostly along the coasts of the 5.4 million-square-mile land mass. Covered 98 percent by ice that is three miles deep at its thickest point, Antarctica holds more than 70 percent of the world's fresh water. It has taken millenia for that ice to build up, however, because the interior of Antarctica receives only one to two inches of precipitation each year.
The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1961, now has 26 nations as ``consultative'' parties (meaning they vote on policy) and 16 observer nations). Responding to calls for greater protection, treaty signatories created a Protocol on Environmental Protection in 1991. The new covenant forbids any kind of oil or mineral resource exploitation in the Antarctic for 50 years.
Each ``consultative'' nation must pass legislation to make the protocol law for its citizens working in the Antarctic. Several bills have been filed in the US. Last month, the Clinton administration put forward its own proposal.
The administration's bill allows the NSF to sustain the nation's work in the Antarctic, Dr. Sullivan says. ``I can't say that about the other bills.''
From the other corner, Bruce Manheim Jr., senior attorney for the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund says that ``we're very disappointed in the administration's proposal, which we believe was substantially watered down by NSF.'' Mr. Manheim says that the administration proposal holds that the US program need not comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) where it decides that a project is a joint action with another nation. Because many research projects are joint actions, this would exempt them from NEPA compliance.
Despite the distrust between the two sides, progress has been made in the past year both groups claim. Environmentalists generally applauded the appointment of Sullivan earlier this year. And the NSF has faced up to some of its past mistakes.
``There was an insult to the environment,'' says Dennis Peacock, head of the NSF's polar science section. ``But that was 20 years ago. In the past five years, we have spent the better part of $200 million on a safety, environment, and health initiative.''
Erick Chiang, manager of NSF's polar operations section, says ``a main component of the problem was the attitudes of the people who went to the Antarctic.... We have reversed that both in how we educate people and through practices such as sorting, recycling, and approaching end-to-end waste management.''
``It's hard to predict, but I think they are moving in the right direction,'' says Ms. Sabella of Greenpeace.