AT McMURDO SOUND, on October 28, 1908, on the eve of departing on his attempt to reach the South Pole, Ernest Shackleton wrote out instructions for Douglas Mawson to prospect for "minerals of economic value." It was the first known directive to probe the resources of continental Antarctica.

That year, Great Britain made the first territorial claim in Antarctica, instead of merely depending on the traditional raising of the flag. Both incidents encapsulate the international conflict now looming over Antarctica, which this book earnestly attempts to summarize. Stripped to its essentials, it is yet another variation on the old, familiar themes of economic expansion and foreign policy. There is this difference, however: Antarctica, being buried beneath an ice cap, had no native inhabitants to complicate matters.

In the public mind, Antarctica is associated with the epic age of exploration, and the race for the ends of the earth. It effectually ended with the attainment of the South Pole on December 14, 1911, by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, with four companions, on skis, and 17 dogs. That was the apex of the old technology of polar travel, with explorers moving on their own two feet. After the first World War, polar travel was mechanized and, in Antarctica at least, the United States took over from the Norwegians as masters of the craft.

The American presence in continental Antarctica began in 1928 with the first expedition of Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd. This opened the modern era of large enterprises, using aircraft, radio and tractors. Other expeditions, notably from Britain, Germany and Norway, sporadically appeared, but they were relatively small, and could not hope to compete with the American effort. The United States became the leading Antarctic nation and dominated a continent. In a sense it was the first breach in American isolationism between the wars.

The upshot was that by 1960, Americans had discovered about 80 percent of the Antarctic continental area. By then, however, America had become one of the superpowers. She was grappling with the still unfamiliar problems of global strategy, colored by moralistic attitudes with deep historical roots.

In the Antarctic this led to the United States' declining to press her territorial claims. Instead, she conceived of an international condominium, in which national claims would be held in abeyance, but where she would play the leading role. Since American power was then unchallenged, this was the view that prevailed. It was enshrined in the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961. It is the root of the trouble threatening ahead.

The treaty was a way of surmounting a delicate problem by preventing the militarization and commercial exploitation of Antarctica, remove it from politics, and turn it into a scientific laboratory. This was all very well, as long as the Antarctic was of no obvious value. It was hard to foresee the present global interest in natural resources. Antarctica has started to promise reserves of minerals and oil, not to mention fisheries off shore. The Third World has "discovered" the Antarctic, and that is the nightmare haunting at least the Western powers as the first revision of the Antarctic Treaty approaches in 1991.

The Third World subscribes to the convenient doctrine that the rich countries -- which means clever and technically superior ones -- should subsidize the poor. They believe they are entitled to a share of any future Antarctic goodies as of right. They are lobbying furiously through the United Nations. In Antarctic circles this has aroused considerable resentment. The cost of working down on the ice is huge. Only the advanced industrial nations can afford it. Having invested their own money and effort, now they are faced with the clamor of mendicants trying to climb on their backs.

This is building up pressure to change the Antarctic Treaty on the lines of the Law of the Sea Convention. That declares the seabed to be the common heritage of mankind and, in effect, requires richer countries to work for the benefit of the poor. In the Antarctic, as Deborah Shapley suggests, the United States appears unprepared to deal with the situation. It is not confined to the dilemma of the haves facing the moral blackmail of the have nots.

The root of the trouble is that Antarctic matters have become the monopoly of scientific bureaucrats in Washington. Under the Antarctic Treaty, science is the only viable pretext to maintain a permanent American presence in Antarctica, and thus to preserve territorial rights by what is called "constructive occupation." After nearly 40 years of continuously maintaining bases in Antarctica, the official establishment has become ossified. The projects are repetitive, dominated by the earth sciences and redolent of academe of the late '50s. Moreover, the United States has concentrated on land bases and air transport. No oceanographic or fishery research vessel is permanently available.

The National Science Foundation in Washington virtually dictates American Antarctic policy. It has worried countries like Britain, New Zealand and Australia, which maintain a modest presence in Antarctica, by banning private expeditions in favor of an official monopoly. This stems from fear of disturbing the Antarctic Treaty. Chile and Argentina, however, have ignored American remonstrances, and blithely allow private expeditions to use their bases on the Antarctic Peninsula. It is the first visible crack in the treaty structure.

There remain the enigmatic motives of the Russians, an issue that this book too obviously skirts round. Today Russia, one of the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, maintains more bases in Antarctica than the Americans. Is a confrontation of the superpowers now appearing on the ice? Communist countries, like Cuba, with no previous Antarctic interest, are hastening to accede to the treaty. The treaty bans arms from Antarctica, but the Chernobyl nuclear incident, not to mention lack of frankness in Antarctic matters, and ruthless over-fishing in southern waters, must cast doubt on Russian trustworthiness, down on the ice as well.