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Antarctica, the last place on Earth where nature reigns over man, is facing a showdown between those who want to tap its fabled wealth and those who want it to remain forever untouched under ice.

The majestic continent at the bottom of the world, larger than United States and Mexico combined, is still peopled by scant thousands who have to import everything but ice cubes.Although 16 nations fly flags in Antarctica, and seven claim slices of it, no one holds title. No one needs a passport. It is a vast global common, ruled only by the harsh, unforgiving elements.

But statesmen, scientists and environmentalists must decide soon whether Antarctica will open up to oilmen and airmen, miners, commercial fishermen, hotelkeepers and, possibly, colonists.

In Paris, beginning Monday, 39 nations will review the 1959 Antarctic Treaty that expires in 1991. They also will examine the remains of the Antarctic Minerals Convention, signed in May 1988.

The convention would have allowed controlled mining and oil exploration, replacing a voluntary moratorium. But Australia, one of seven claimant nations with a veto, decided not to ratify it.

The United States, the Soviet Union and Japan, among others, are pressing for a minerals accord. France, echoing Australia's concerns, wants Antarctica to be an unspoiled world park.

Delegates were guarded over an eventual compromise. The 1988 convention took six years to negotiate.

Proponents say a world short of resources has no choice. Antarctica hoards unknown quantities of gold, platinum and other strategic metals, along with oil in amounts estimated to be in the billions of barrels.

Detractors insist that even controlled exploitation inevitably pollutes a reserve crucial to man's survival. Upsetting its delicate balance, they say, will have consequences no one can predict.

Undeniably, the world is already muscling in. Penguin livers are tainted with pesticides and plastics. Century-old garbage litters pristine panoramas. Antarctica has had its first oil spill.

Scientists worry that tourists, whose numbers now approach 10,000 a year, endanger fragile ecosystems. Huge ice floes menace ships' hulls, adding a threat of oil pollution.

Yet it is the ancient lure of the mysterious continent, largely unexplored for all of history's daring expeditions, that make it such a disputed prize.

Antarctica is 98 percent under ice, but it is no more a white continent than Africa is a dark one.

Old ice grows blue, then rich turquoise. As the sun shifts its angle over floating ice and the glacier beyond, Antarctica is aglow in pinks and oranges beyond the range of film or canvas.

Penguin colonies, like rush-hour crowds dressed in black tie, amuse scientists who try to take them seriously. Seals frolic and birds move from place to place in turbulent clouds.

For all the beauty, arguments focus on survival of the planet.

President Francois Mitterrand of France, making the case for a world wilderness area, told scientists from 40 countries at a June meeting: "It's not just the forests, the prairies or rivers that are in danger. It's the entire Earth."

Specialists regard Antarctica as the world's weather factory.

For 10 years, scientists there have measured the Earth's thinning ozone layer, letting through radiation that risks catastrophic changes in world climate and ocean levels.

A New Zealand team recently reported the ozone hole over Antarctica was much more serious than previously believed.

Human activity disturbs the breeding of unique species of birds and marine mammals, scientists say. Fishing threatens a delicate food chain that depends upon plentiful supplies of krill, a tiny shrimp.

In Antarctica, with treacherous sea lanes and lashing winds, accidents are common. Once damage is done, experience shows, it is very difficult to correct.

Man on the frozen continent requires steady supply. The fauna is all but inedible. Even penguin eggs are too greasy for breakfast. The plants are minuscule lichens. And what comes in must be carried out.

Travelers today find Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's hut as he left it in 1911, with unrusted tins of Huntley & Palmer's biscuits lined up on dust-free shelves. Cold, clean air preserves almost anything.

Environmentalists rage at garbage dumps that accompany a lengthening string of military and scientific outposts, including the sprawling U.S. McMurdo Station.

The Greenpeace environmentalist group set up a base near McMurdo to monitor developments. Its members came to blows with French soldiers building a runway across from a penguin rookery near the South Magnetic Pole.

The group accuses the Americans, among others, of killing marine life with sewage and refuse. If scientists cannot protect the environment, Greenpeace argues, oilmen and miners will be worse.

Near the end of September, word filtered out that 44,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked from a pipe at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. The leak was discovered in August.

U.S. officials said it would seep into the ice with no environmental damage. But Foreign Minister Gareth Evans of Australia called it a perfect example of why Antarctica had to be protected.

In the early 1970s, when politics heated in Antarctica, claimant nations hurried to strengthen their positions.

Argentina leased a Greek ship, with deck chairs but no radar, for cut-rate tourism. Chile built a hotel. Last year, the first commercial flights landed at the South Pole.

Now Australian entrepreneurs propose a runway for 747 jet aircraft, a five-story hotel and a hovercraft dock.

When the mineral convention was signed, some specialists argued that controlled exploitation was better than no accord at all. If anyone broke the moratorium, no international law would apply.

Ideas included carrying out oil in submarines, rather than tankers, to minimize risk.

But the picture changed in January when an Argentine supply ship, the Bahia Paraiso, nosed into waters marked on charts "dangerous ledges and channels" and tore open its double hull.

The crew and all 81 tourists escaped, but an estimated 170,000 gallons of fuel oil leaked onto marine habitats, killing seals, penguins and other marine life.

Salvage crews were able to stop the leakage but oil still remains in the ship's tanks.

The Argentine navy reported after a reconnaissance flight over the area in early September that the Bahia Paraiso is still aground in ice-free waters and listing.

Capt. Raul Pueyrredon of the Argentine navy said the airmen "saw no evidence of leakage nor any visible ecological damage."

He added that he was not sure how much oil remained in the vessel but that "it was very little."

In a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner in May, the Environmental Defense Fund, an American organization that describes itself as non-profit, said the Bahia Paraiso still had about 70,000 gallons of fuel on board.