Stretching out at precise intervals across the vast white Polar Plateau, beginning at the geographic South Pole and ending somewhere in the middle distance, a series of yard-high stakes is the physical evidence of a remarkable phenomenon.
The surface location directly above the southern terminus of the globe is not fixed. It moves roughly 30 feet every year, as the polar ice creeps north.
On New Year's Day each year, a pole is placed at exactly 90 degrees south latitude by a team of surveyors from U.S. Geological Survey, using precision measuring tools of the 21st century.
Over the next 12 months, the pole drifts with the constantly moving Antarctic ice sheet, slowly inching its way toward the edge of the continent as gravity draws the ice in the center of Antarctica towards an inevitable rendezvous with the sea.
Atop each pole sits a metal marker about eight inches in diameter. Each is designed, selected and machined by the handful of hardy souls who keep the scientific enterprise operating during the six months of cold, darkness and total isolation that are the hallmarks of a polar winter.
Known as "winter-overs," these scientists, technicians and support staff participate in a contest where they create a design that will represent their unique community—a tribe unlike any other on Earth, sharing an experience known only to a handful of people over the space of recorded time.
Various designs are put up for a vote, and the winner—once approved by the National Science Foundation—is affixed to the marker during an annual ceremony in January when the South Pole is once again surveyed.
The 2011 bronze marker, as pictured above, commemorates the centennial of the achievement of the South Pole by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Machinist Derek Aboltine fabricated the marker based on a design by fellow winter-over David Holmes.
The 2011 marker is in the shape of a sextant, an instrument used for navigation in the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration. There are 47 individual degree marks on both sides at the bottom of the marker, representing the number of people who wintered at the South Pole in 2010. In addition, a free-spinning "medallion" sits in between the angled arms of the bronzed sextant, which rests on a pedestal that displays the names of Amundsen's team. On one engraved side is a well-known image of Amundsen and three other men admiring a tent flying the Norwegian flag at the South Pole. On the other is an engraving of the modern South Pole Station.
The complex design is reflective of the physical labor and the imagination that goes into crafting the annual maker and also of the sense of community that the winter-overs share.
"You experience changes, mentally, physically, chemically that you can't really experience in any other place," according to Dehlia Sprague, who designed the marker for the 2004-2005 research season. "You bond with winter-overs more than with anyone else in the world."
To produce a winning design is an honor. To unveil the new marker at the annual ceremony is another. Sprague, a 29-year-old veteran of five seasons in the Antarctic, accomplished both in January of 2006.