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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?


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