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Marking the South Pole:
A good point: South Pole geographic marker changes with the times

Marking the South Pole
2011 Marker
The 2011 bronze marker commemorates the centennial of the achievement of the South Pole by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. December 14, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival Amundsen's party of five at the geographic South Pole. The marker is in the shape of a sextant, an instrument used for navigation in the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic Exploration. Machinist Derek Aboltine fabricated the 2011 marker based on the design by fellow winter-over David Holmes.
Credit: Nick Strehl, National Science Foundation

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.

This series of photographs shows replicas of South Pole markers created by the Pole community between 1999 and 2005.
Credit: Peter West, National Science Foundation

She designed the 2004-2005 marker almost on a whim after an initial round of designs failed to excite the community. "I actually came up with my design in one afternoon," she says. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

She was aiming, she says, for something that spoke more of art than of artifice.

"We have had some really beautiful pole markers, some of them are very creative," she said. "But on the whole they look like they've been designed by engineers and I have an art background. I was just trying to get something to represent summer and winter. I wanted something that was really different."

Her final design incorporated the sun, the moon and "sun dogs," an atmospheric phenomenon produced by the reflection of light from ice crystals in the atmosphere. It was a hit with the community. "I was very excited about it. It was a pretty overwhelming vote," she says.

A year later on January 1, she was asked to join the crowd around the pole as the 2005-2006 marker—a representation of the new elevated South Pole station designed by Stephen Parshley, a Cornell University engineer—was unveiled.

"I didn't realize 'til we were actually out there that I was going to get to unveil it," she said.

All of the markers stay atop the poles for a year or two before they are brought back into the station and exhibited in a collection that dates back to the 1980s.

The markers are, in a way, a perfect symbol for the place: a triumph of science and the scientific method to measure and quantify an otherwise almost trackless and timeless wilderness. But they are also much more, like symbols of the human quirkiness that brings people to "the ice," as veterans call Antarctica. And, they also represent one of the frozen continent's few indigenous art forms.

Perhaps fittingly for a continent where environmental protocols are strictly enforced to minimize human impacts, the fame of having designed a marker is a fleeting glory, Sprague says.

"Yeah, I left my mark at the pole, pun intended," she jokes. "But who's going to know in two years?"

—by Peter West

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