THOUGH they were not even sure that it really existed, the ancient Greeks called Antarctica ``Terra Australis Incognita.''
Antarctica remained an unknown quantity through most of recorded history. On his 1773-74 voyage, Captain James Cook discovered South Georgia Island and postulated the existence of a southern continent. But he did not venture far enough in the ice-laden waters to see it himself.
Then early in the 19th century, Connecticut sealer Nathaniel B. Palmer, Capt. Edward Bransfield of Britain, and Admiral Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen from Russia saw the continent for the first time within a few weeks of each other.
Thus began human history in Antarctica, which opened with a chapter of unbridled exploitation.
Seals, whales, and even penguins were boiled down for their blubber and oil. Science only slowly gained ground against economic priorities in the exploration of Antarctica.
Between 1820 and the first years of the 20th century, sealers destroyed nearly the entire fur-seal population (which is only now recovering).
The whaling industry almost wiped out species of whales, including the blue whale, which is still at about only 2 percent of its population in the early 19th century.
Not until the first International Polar Year (1882-83) were initial scientific bases placed on Tierra del Fuego and on South Georgia Island. But another 20-year hiatus would intervene before scientific activities began in earnest.
In 1902, British Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Expedition established a base at Hut Point on Ross Island, where the present-day United States McMurdo Station is located. His party studied local animals and made atmospheric and climatic observations.
Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was part of Scott's group, returned to the Antarctic in 1907. His Nimrod Expedition traveled 1,250 miles by sledge to reach the south magnetic pole, 112 miles short of the geographic South Pole.
Then on December 14, 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat Scott in the race to the South Pole by more than a month. Scott's entire expedition made it to the Pole but perished on the return trip.
As time passed, motorized vehicles and airplanes replaced human and dog power. Logistics became dependable enough that science could finally come to the forefront in the Antarctic. In the 1920s and '30s, Admiral Richard Byrd thrilled Americans with his radio reports from Little America on Ross Island.
But politics still occasionally intervened. Just before World War II, the Nazis came down to Antarctica, flying around the continent and dropping swastikas to claim territory for Germany.
``This provoked people to start to ask what should be done,'' says Ethan Berkowitz, who is currently crisscrossing the continent as the US Antarctic Conservation Act Enforcement Officer. ``After the war, the US suggested internationalization of the continent, which didn't go over very well,'' Mr. Berkowitz says.
In 1957-58, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) brought a surge of scientific activity to the Antarctic, with 12 nations setting up more than 60 bases on or near the continent.
``It was a unique international effort, not only because it involved so many countries, but also because it occurred at the height of the cold war,'' Berkowitz says. ``Because the iron was hot, [President] Eisenhower decided to put forward the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and by 1961 it became the governing regime for Antarctica.''
One big expeditionary hurdle remained: Crossing the continent on land.
During the IGY, Sir Vivian Fuchs mounted a motorized 2,158-mile trek from Shackleton Base on the Weddell Sea, stopping to visit the Americans at the South Pole Station, then on to Scott Base at McMurdo Sound.
But priorities on the continent were already changing irreversibly away from exploration and toward science.
``When people stayed here year after year, the expeditionary mentality faded to the background,'' Berkowitz says. ``Today we're in the highly advanced stage of the examination period.... Because nations no longer shut down their bases, the impact mankind makes on areas is more pronounced.''
In interviews here and in the United States, scientists and bureaucrats who run the US Antarctic Program say that science in Antarctica has reached a threshold.
Instead of coming down to find out what Antarctica is all about, researchers are coming here to look for evidence of mankind's impact on the global environment and to learn how changes in global climate hinge on what happens in the Antarctic.
The environment here is so pure that scientists can determine baseline levels of pollutants. Without local distortions, they can gauge what is happening on a global basis.
Cooperation between scientists of different nations has been one of the hallmarks of Antarctic research.
``It is such a marvelously remote and forbidding place that people realize that you don't have time for anything but cooperation,'' says Raymond Arnaudo, director of the Division of Polar Affairs at the US State Department. ``Cooperation really transcends the requirements to abide by hard-line policies of respective governments.''
EMERGENCY US support of an ice-core drilling project at the Russian Vostok Station is a good example.
``We have a long investment in the ice drilling that has gone on there with the French, the US, and the Russians each using their special expertise,'' says Cornelius Sullivan, director of the Office of Polar Programs for the National Science Foundation. The Russian mission to resupply Vostok with fuel last year did not make it - stranding the fuel barrels 60 miles from the station.
``On Nov. 25, my office got a call from St. Petersburg,'' Dr. Sullivan says. ``They were possibly going to have to leave without casing the hole so that it can be redrilled. We were going to lose much of our investment.''
Over the years, the United States has drilled for ice cores in the Greenland ice sheet as well as in Antarctica. Data on thousands of years of climatic change is buried in the ice. Because the Antarctic core is just about at the depth where the Greenland core stopped, the most valuable information remains. Sullivan reassigned three flights to get enough fuel to Vostok to allow the core to be cased and preserved.
As the world settles into a post-cold-war era, Vostok seems an appropriate site for evidence of warmer relations between nations doing scientific work on the ice. It is certainly a poor place to be without friends. In 1983, Vostok logged the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth - minus 128.6 degrees F.