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Cold facts of a frozen continent

Seven nations, from Norway to Argentina, lay claim to parts of Antarctica. Their claims fit like wedges in a big frozen pie. Three wedges overlap. And 15 percent of the ``pie'' remains free of claims. The reasons for the claims range from being among the first to discover Antarctica (Britain) to ``spiritually identifying'' with it (Argentina). Australia claims the largest wedge -- two-fifths of the continent.

Bouvet de Lozier, a Frenchman, actually landed on an island off the continent in 1739. Then in 1820, British Capt. Edward Bransfield sighted the mainland. Later that year American sealing captain, Nathaniel Palmer, also spotted the frozen shore. Given the weather conditions, a landing was not seriously considered.

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Both the geographic and magnetic South Pole lie on an immense drifting ice plateau. A British expedition, led by Sir Ernest H. Shackleton from 1907 to 1909, located the magnetic pole, where the Soviet Union now maintains Vostok Station. The Americans maintain a station at the geographic pole, where they erected a geodesic dome a decade ago. This pole was first reached by four Norwegians in 1911, led by Roald Amundsen. A month later, British explorer Robert F. Scott, also reached the spot (but failed to survive the journey out). Thus, today the station is called Amundsen-Scott. The first American near the pole was Richard L. Byrd, who flew over it in 1929. It wasn't until 1956 that Adm. George J. Dufek flew to the pole and helped build the first station.

The next two years saw intensive Antarctica research by 12 nations, under a program known as International Geophysical Year. In 1959, the seven claimants (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, Britain) and five others (United States, Soviet Union, South Africa, Japan, and Belgium) signed the Antarctica Treaty.

The United Nations, having completed the Law of the Sea Treaty, has turned its attention to Antarctica and the 1959 treaty. In the meantime, the planet's seven continent remains under serious scientific scrutiny. Last month, a conference was held in Anarctica at a US camp, where 30 nations were briefed on the latest international research.

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