At the bottom of the world, more than two miles beneath the wind-blasted surface of Antarctica, sits a wonder of the last untouched continent.
Locked deep in the Antarctic ice is Lake Vostok, the seventh-largest body of fresh water in the world, yet one that has never been glimpsed by human eyes. To scientists, it is nothing less than an alien world, where the surroundings are so extreme that they could harbor previously undiscovered forms of life.
Yet just 420 feet above its unseen surface, a Russian drill is poised, ready to break through and potentially pollute a pristine and unique environment.
The Russians' goal is scientific, but it points to a growing threat in the Great White South, as a new boom of activity erodes Antarctica's isolation. Once the domain of doughty explorers such as Scott and Shackleton, Antarctica is becoming increasingly crowded by curious tourists, spellbound scientists, and countries hungry for oil and minerals.
Though mining is banned until 2048, more nations are in a race to gain a toehold on the continent now – hoping to secure a voice when and if the world decides to divide up Antarctica's spoils.
"By being at the table, they are able to influence negotiations over future developments in Antarctica," says Marcus Haward, an Antarctica policy expert at the University of Tasmania. "It's a case of being inside the tent when the key decisions are made."
Already, countries are jockeying for position in the event that soaring oil prices and a world energy crisis lead to the relaxation of the ban.
Though only seven countries claim territory on Antarctica – Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, Norway, and New Zealand – other signatories of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty can build scientific stations, and many have stepped up their efforts recently. China and India have plans to add to the 59 permanent and seasonal bases in Antarctica, as do Estonia, Belgium, and South Korea.
Not surprisingly, the changes have caused some ripples. India recently announced that it wants to build a new base in the Larsemann Hills, in an area that has been designated construction-free by international consent.
More generally, the transition from the cramped timber huts of a century ago to high-tech scientific bases of today has caused consternation across Antarctica. As husky dogs and sledges give way to modern means of transportation, the United States has blazed a 1,000-mile-long "ice highway" from its McMurdo station on the coast to the South Pole.
The track will be used to haul hundreds of tons of equipment across ice fields and crevasses. To Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, it goes against the pristine ethic of Antarctica.
"I think it's terrible," the New Zealander said of the highway two years ago, condemning the environmental impact of the multimillion dollar project.
Getting to Antarctica is also becoming easier, with South Africa planning to establish an air link across the Southern Ocean, and Australia building an ice runway at its Casey base. The two-mile-long runway, which will start operating next year, will accommodate planes from Hobart, Tasmania, enabling scientists to avoid a grueling sea passage. The 2,140 mile flight will take around 10 hours.
While the number of scientists in Antarctica is still relatively small, the number of tourists is increasing by 15 percent a year, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Drawn by sculpted blue glaciers, huge penguin colonies, and extraordinary landscapes, more than 30,000 tourists visited the continent last summer, compared with 5,000 visitors in 1990.
Some boats carry as many as 800 passengers and have helicopters to whisk high-paying clients to previously unvisited areas. With no regulation of tourism under the Antarctic Treaty, activists are concerned. "Mass commercial tourism has arrived in the Antarctic," reports the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a watchdog group in Washington. "There is essentially no constraint on where you can go, what you can do, and how many of you can do it."
While most tourists return from Antarctica with a sense of awe at the continent's beauty and isolation, one recent visitor came back with a rather different view. Barnaby Joyce, a conservative MP in the Australian parliament, went on a fact-finding trip to Antarctica and on his return declared that Canberra should think about mining the frozen continent. Australia claims 42 percent of Antarctica.
"What you have to ask is, 'Do I turn my head and allow another country to exploit my resource, or do I position myself in such a way that I'm going to exploit it myself before they get there?' " said Senator Joyce.
His suggestion was condemned by all the main political parties. But the senator was not alone in casting an envious eye over the vast reserves of gas and coal that are believed to lie beneath the ice.
Mining is explicitly banned, and most experts believe that it would be prohibitively expensive to mine, process, and transport minerals from Antarctica.
For now the only drilling taking place is the Russian experiment at Lake Vostok, and that is controversial enough.
When the issue was discussed at the most recent Antarctic Treaty meeting in Edinburgh in June, "there was a great deal of environmental disquiet," says Tony Press, head of the Australian Antarctic Division. "Some scientists said it's not necessary to penetrate the lake at all, that the Russians could instead take samples from the ice close to the lake."
Russia has assured critics that a similar operation to drill into a subglacial lake in Greenland caused no pollution. But the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition is unconvinced that the kerosene used to lubricate the drill will not despoil the lake.
"There is a compelling reason to reassess all drilling activity," the coalition advised at the June meeting of the Antarctic Treaty. "Any risk to [the lake] ... is unacceptable."