Antarctic carve up begins

The jostle is beginning for the Antarctic, a potentially lucrative source of oil, gas and tourism.

As previously reported the Arctic was subject to a land grab last year by Russia and Canada with Russia theatrically planting a flag on the sea bed to advertise its claim. By contrast Antarctica is forever designated for peaceful and scientific purposes under a 1959 treaty seen as a successful by product of the Cold War.

However the treaty is now being tested by the UN 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.

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.

So far bids have been low key with only Australia and New Zealand claiming. The 1958 treaty does not allow for extending claims or making new ones. The process is difficult and so far has proved uncontroversial with the other claimants.

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 is set to increase. The battle for the last great wilderness has begun.