TROLL STATION, Antarctica - Nations claiming parts of Antarctica are quietly staking out rights to the seabed, in stark contrast to the North Pole where Russia ostentatiously planted a flag to back its claim.
"We have a vessel making seismic surveys of the continental shelf," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters at the Troll research station, 155 miles inland in a part of Antarctica claimed by Oslo.
Interested countries are tiptoeing around the question of who owns the Antarctic seabed, and potential deposits of oil and gas, fearing it could open the floodgates to counter-claims or undermine a treaty protecting the continent as a nature reserve.
Unlike the Arctic, which is open to competition for minerals, Antarctica is set aside forever for peaceful purposes and scientific research under a 1959 treaty that was a big success of the Cold War.
Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway -- all close to Antarctica or with historical ties -- made claims before the treaty took effect. Moscow and Washington did not make claims but reserved the right to do so.
Norway's interests go back almost a century -- Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was first to reach the South Pole in 1911, before Briton Robert Falcon Scott.
However, the Antarctic Treaty is being tested by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has set a deadline of May 2009 for most coastal states to map their continental shelves, aiming to define rights to seabed areas.
Johannes Huber, head of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat in Buenos Aires, told Reuters: "Under the Antarctic Treaty you cannot increase your claim, you cannot make new claims."
He added: "There are quite a few prohibitions, so anything that makes it seem like they are increasing their territory could lead to trouble. None of the moves so far have caused any controversy among the Antarctic Treaty parties."
Australia and New Zealand are the only states to have made low-key bids so far over seabed rights, but insist they will respect Antarctica's status as a natural reserve. Others have yet to decide.
Although its deposits of oil, gas and minerals must remain undisturbed for now, Antarctica has other assets that countries are able to exploit.
Its tourism industry brings in almost 40,000 visitors a year, and abundant stocks of krill, a small crustacean, provide a source of fish feed, dietary supplements, food flavoring and pharmaceuticals, and can even be used for cleaning Old Masters.
The Antarctic treaty puts territorial claims on hold and bans hunting for minerals until 2048 at the earliest, when a review is possible.
The shadow-boxing over Antarctica's seabed is far from the unbridled rivalry over resources in the Arctic, which could hold a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves according to some official U.S. estimates.
Russia, in the boldest claim, said in August that explorers using a mini-sub had planted a rust-free metal tricolor on the seabed beneath the North Pole in waters 4,261 meters (13,980 ft) deep. Copenhagen has said the North Pole is Danish.
Exploiting oil, gas or minerals off Antarctica would be even more daunting than in the Arctic because of ice, cold, huge distances, storms and deep water.
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea specifies that states own the seabed beyond an existing zone of 200 nautical miles if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.
Australia made surveys and submitted data defining its seabed off Antarctica to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2004.
"In Australia's note accompanying the submission it requested the CLCS not to take any action for the time being," a spokesman for Australia's Foreign Affairs and Trade Department said. "The CLCS agreed to this request ... Australia is committed to the Antarctic Treaty."
New Zealand took a different tack in 2006, saying it would not, for the time being, submit any data but reserved the right to do so in future. Other countries have yet to decide.
It is unclear what the rules, which will affect rights to oil and gas drilling, minerals or "bio-prospecting" of life on the seabed, mean for Antarctica.
"The decision is up to the coastal states," said Alexandre Albuquerque, a Brazilian who chairs the U.N. commission, when asked if states with Antarctic territorial claims should submit data.
"It would be comfortable to the commission if Antarctic claimants got together and made a joint submission. However ... this decision is up to the coastal states," he said.
On one hand, failure to submit a seabed claim might make it seem countries are no longer interested in their territorial claims. However, aggressively making a claim to the seabed could be seen as a violation of the Antarctic Treaty.
Failing to meet the commission's deadline of May 2009 could mean forfeiting its approval of any claim.
"I don't think that the Antarctic treaty is threatened," Norway's Stoltenberg said. "It has survived the Cold War and the great powers disputes and it will survive this."
Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in Canberra
Editing by Andrew Dobbie
© 2008 Reuters