So this is the cold, white underbelly of the earth: a lonely, savage place where, even now, few humans have walked. As far as the eye can see, and thousands of miles beyond, the flat ice stretches into infinity. The primordial silence of the polar plateau engulfs the senses.

"Great God! This is an awful place." The words of Robert Falcon Scott, scrawled in his journal a few weeks before he froze to death in the snow, echo still. That was 69 years ago, but the ghosts of dead explorers seem even now to haunt this desolate land.

It is summer on the ice. There is neither dawn nor dusk. Round the clock, the sun shimmers off the geodesic dome that encloses South Pole station, a tiny American outpost. The ostensible reason for this unusual settlement -- year-round population: 17 -- is scientific. A few experiments are conducted here in astronomy, atmospheric pollution, glaciology.

But the presence of the United States in this bleak wilderness, like the expeditions of early explorers, has less to do with science than with international machismo. "If we closed up this station, the Russians would be in here the next morning," said Richard Cameron, a representative of the National Science Foundation, which runs four U.S. stations in Antarctica. n"It's a matter of prestige."

Antarctica is the seventh continent, a land bigger than the United States and Mexico combined, yet still virtually unknown to the rest of the world. It is the coldest place on earth -- temperatures dip to minus 126 degrees Fahrenheit in the perpetual winter night. Two-hundred-mile-per-hour gales whip off the polar plateau and roll the iceberg-strewn waves of the southern ocean, cutting off the continent from any ships or planes for nine months a year.

When it was discovered less than two centuries ago, probably by Nathaniel Palmer, a New England seal hunter, Antarctica attracted little attention except from daring, often foolhardy adventurers, and sea captains hunting fur seals and whales. But in the last 20 years, this forgotten continent has become a vast scientific laboratory where researchers from around the world study everything from penguin courtship to the effect of polar winds on the world's climate.

And today, in a world frantic for resources, Antarctica suddenly looms as a possible treasure cache of offshore oil and krill, a tiny shrimp with the protein equivalent of beefsteak. (Some countries are already making krill beer and krill sandwich spread.) Even Antarctica's fresh water might someday prove a valuable resource, if someone figures out how to tow icebergs. And, as the earth's wild areas dwindle, Antarctica is proving to be a tourist attraction, with wealthy sightseers paying $8,000 and more to cruise along its coastline.

Antarctica's resource potential has heightened its strategic importance, making the question of who owns this ice-locked land a potentially explosive international issue. Two countries, Argentina and Chile, have already threatened to go to war over their overlapping territorial claims.

It is a 12,000-mile journey from Washington, D.C., to the South Pole: a flight through Los Angeles smog, past a Hawaiian sunset, over the green hills of New Zealand and the dark waters of the southern ocean. Scientists, laborers and technicians arrive in scores during the summer season, stopping first at McMurdo Station, the United States' sprawling logistics base on the coast.

McMurdo, sitting on the edge of the Ross ice shelf, a floating mass the size of Texas, is not far from where the expeditions of Scott and Ernest Shackleton, and the historic 1929 flight of Adm. Richard Byrd were launched. But the expedition to the Pole these days is a far cry from the terrifying heroics of early explorers. It took Scott 2 1/2 months to make the 700-mile journey with wooden sledges and Siberian ponies. Today it is a three-hour hop in a huge Hercules transport plane, equipped with skis.

Below, glittering in the relentless light is the earth's most violent landscape, a surreal tableau in shades of black and white. Great glacier highways sweep through the Transarctic mountains. The 13,000-foot peaks, rimming the polar plateau like a medieval fortress, are smothered in snow.

But at the Pole itself, who has ever seen such a horizon: perfectly flat 360 degrees around, except for waves of frozen dunes shaped by the winds. On a recent summer day, the temperature here was a mild 25 below zero. A frigid breeze whipped snow through the air, and the dazzling sunlight turned the snowfield into a huge diamond, reflecting hard rays in all directions. The landscape was colorless, almost innocent in its pale, pale blue sky melting into the pristine ice sheet.

Since 1959 when the United States, the Soviet Union and 10 other countries signed a treaty dedicating the land to peace and science, Antarctica has existed as a unique experiment in international cooperation. Twelve nations run 34 scientific bases here, exchanging research results freely. No weapons nor armies are allowed.

But when the treaty was drafted, it sidestepped the delicate issue of territorial claims. Besides the two South American countries, five nations -- Australia, Britain, New Zealand, France and Norway -- claim pieshaped wedges of the continent radiating out from the Pole. The other members of the "Antarctic Club" including, besides the two superpowers, Japan, South Africa, Belgium and Poland -- which recently built a scientific station and became the 13th member -- don't recognize the claims.

If competition for fish or oil heats up, claimant states are expected to become more vociferous. But the United States, thanks in part to this tiny outpost at the bottom of the world, is ready. "By establishing a station at the South Pole, we have a stake in every one of those claims," said Walter Seelig, a National Science Foundation representative.

The ceremonial pole, a handsome glass globe on top of a three-foot striped barber pole, surrounded by the flags of the 13 Antarctic treaty nations, is an impressive backdrop for photographs, but it does not stand on the actual Pole. The ice moves 11 meters a year, flowing off the polar plateau, and the station moves with it. Physically, the real pole is 450 feet out into the snowdrifts.

A few feet from the globe, a wooden pole, fashioned by local residents, is topped by a carved whale inscribed: "Salmon, Idaho: 9,512 mi." Salmon was the home of a construction crew leader who recruited some of his buddies to help build the station. Other signs nailed on the pole include "Linden, Tex., Seat of Cass Co. 8,856.1 mi.," "Rockaway Beach, N.Y. 9,016 mi.," and "Virginia Tech 10,801 miles." Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University runs several research programs on the continent.

The Navy outfits all workers and visitors with 40 pounds of waffle-weave underwear, wool shirts, multi-layered trousers, wool socks, rubber mukluks, balaclavas, deerskin mittens and wool liners -- enough to make one sweat when the temperature hovers around zero. A tin dogtag, "for survival situations," is provided. Breathing through the wolverine lining of one's parka is suggested "so the ice doesn't freeze on your face." Sunglasses are advised to prevent snow-blindness. Cotton gloves are distributed for holding cameras or touching cold metal, or the skin will peel off the flesh.

When the winter temperature dips to minus 100, a favority sport of the stir-crazy year-round residents is to jump into a 200-degree sauna, run naked to the Pole (100 yards from their living quarters), take a flash photograph and run back. This qualifies them for membership in the "300 Club," the most exclusive society on the continent.

Noah White, 43, a communications expert and a veteran of six summers and three winters at the Pole, is a proud member. He sits in the midst of a formidable array of machines, most of them adorned with photographs of naked women, sending and receiving a mass of technical messages through satellites. "I love the Antarctic," said White, who was putting through a ham radio callbetween a Navy supply worker and his girlfriend in South Carolina.

"Sure I get terrible craving for Big Macs and long, hot showers. Sometimes, I think, Gees! What in the hell am I doing here? But it's the idea of the place -- the fact that it's at the bottom of the world."

The presence of man seems almost impudent in this trackless wasteland. Not a tree, nor a blade of grass, nor any living creature apart from a few lichen and hardy insects in sheltered rocks, survive here naturally. Even manmade structures have a short life. The first station, built in 1956, todaylies under 40 feet of snow. In seven years, the current building will be crushed by ice.

It is one of the extraordinary contradictions of nature that Antarctica, which contains 96 percent of the world's fresh water, is a desert.The air is so cold it holds little moisture, so precipitation at the Pole is less than an inch a year in water equivalency, about the same as the Gobi desert. It snows less at the South Pole than in Washington.

An ice sheet, formed over the last 26 million years by slowly accumulating layers of snow, blankets the continent. In places, it is almost three miles thick, making Antarctica the highest continent in the world. Part of the icesheet -- including the South Pole -- sits on solid rock, part on an ocean dotted with mountainous islands.

The North Pole, by contrast, sits in the middle of an ocean, covered by a thin layer of sea ice, and surrounded bytips of North America and other continents. Two million people live within the Arctic Circle, in Alaska, Greenland, the Soviet Union and other countries. Although penguins, seals, cormorants and a few other sea-based species are thinly scattered around the Antarctic coastline, this continent is essentially lifeless, in contrast to theArctic's wild profusion of wolves, polar bears, musk oxen, foxes, hares, caribou and reindeer.

Iclcles hang from the roof of the aluminum dome that shelters three orange-painted buildings. Inside, quarters are sparse, but homey. On the door of a dormitory room, an engraved plaque contends: "Jaclyn Smith -- one of Charlie's Angels -- stayed here." A wall-to-wall carpeted library includes several thousand books, among them, "The Thorn Birds," "Manchild in the Promised Land" and a 16-volume set of "Arabian Nights." The Post Office features South Pole cancellations, a philatelic rarity. Outside the mess hall, a stack of casseroles labeled "Beef Stew" stay frozen solid in the outside air. The bar, lighted only by a candle stuck in a Jack Daniels' bottle, offers 50-centbeers, a pool table and Paul Simon on the tape deck.

A few hundred yards from the dome, a wooden structure on stilts houses a laboratory with intricate sampling equipment to measure the world's cleanest air. Cindy McFee, 26, a technician with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explains that the South Pole serves as the baseline for pollution studies around the globe. It is here, she said, that vital measurements are taken of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that could affect the world's climate and agriculture. "We should be able tosee the effects of Mount St. Helens' here," she added.

Outside the South Pole station, Julia Uberuaga, 25, was driving a bulldozer, pushing snow into a huge melter that provides the base's fresh water. "I have a need for a challenge," said the stocky woman with large eyes and long blond hair, one of many youths who come here to do menial jobs just for a chance to see the continent. A foreign language graduate of the University of Idaho, Uberuaga worked as a logger in Emmett, Idaho, and hiked 200 miles across New Zealand's Southern Alps after spending last summer here.

She is becoming expert at handling heavy machinery -- as much a part of Antarctic life as the scientific experiments. "You can make a $3 million mistake unloading aircraft," she said. "You have eight inches' clearance on each side. If you jerk a piece of equipment, or drop the cargo, you can smash the tail of the plane."

Uberuaga doesn't plan to spend the winter here, however, "I think I'll teach tennis in Tahiti," she said. "They speak French there."