Every first-year grammar school student knows the rod around which classroom globe spins goes into the orb at the top at the north pole, where Santa Claus lives, and comes out in that featureless patch of white at the bottom they never show you. By the time you reach your fifth year you know the north pole is frozen ocean and the south pole a patch of ice on top of land.
When you make it to secondary school you know the land at the north geographic pole is under 13,000 feet of Arctic Ocean and is routinely visited by nuclear submarines and ice breakers. The ice there is usually twelve feet thick, and recently in the summer open lanes of water have been seen.
You learn the south geographic pole comes up through a continent covered in two kilometers of ice. Lots of people (mostly crazy) died trying to get to it before pressurized aircraft were invented. Most of them were English or Belgian or Australian or Russian. The most famous south pole dead guy is Robert Falcon Scott, for whom people said "Great Scott" back in the 30's and 40's, and who actually made it to the pole dragging thousands of pounds of stuff on sleds, but died on the way back, manhauling rocks after the startling realization Roald Amundsen had been there first sporting snazzy winter gear (skis and dog sleds) instead of horses and boots filled with dried grass.
You never learn the truth: that the south pole has to be taken inside every now and then to prevent theft.
Even accounting for the incomprehensible bogosity and difficulty of the act -- they have to bring in the pole marker because it gets stolen.
As reported in the January 5th, 2003 edition of the Antarctic Sun, the National Science Foundation's newspaper written and published on the seventh continent:
Larry Hothem, project leader for geodetic science for the United States Antarctic Program at the South Pole Station said: "There's been a couple stolen. I know the 1994 marker is missing."
The pole marker is a stainless steel rod about 10' long with a large brass head four to six inches in diameter, machined by craftsmen each year to commemorate another year of human habitation. Each year a new one is made and placed in the spot that is exactly geographically 90 degrees south, where all the longitude lines merge. The old ones, barring theft, are left in place. There would be a long line of them. Each is unique, having been designed by the winter-over team from the prior year. (There are about 200 inhabitants of south pole station in the summer, and only 50 support staff and scientist "winter overs" to keep things going during the dark season.)
The landscape over the pole is featureless and flat. Except for the man-made buildings, telescopes, airplanes, runways, diesel bulldozers, snowmobiles, satellite dishes, construction cranes, building materials, and food crates, you would see nothing but a flat white surface.
That flat white nothingness over the earth's south pole is an ice sheet that moves about an inch a day. That's between 32' and 33' every year along the 40-degree longtitude line (north, of course). Hence, each pole marker is about 33' from the one of the prior year.
The pole also moves for other reasons that are not usually recorded by the marker placement. Plate tectonics, the influence of the moon and planets, and transport of earth from one part of the planet to others (by giant rivers and ocean currents) cause the earth to wobble on its axis. Every 425 days or so the pole moves in an irregular circle about 25' to 33' in diameter. The scientists at the Scott-Amundsen South Pole Station run by the United States Antarctic Program only make a new pole marker placement once per year so the nearly-cyclic variations in the pole movement have no significant effect.
In about ten years the current pole station buildings would be exactly over the geographic south pole if they were to be there. But if all goes as planned, they'll be turned into recycled beer cans by then as the new pole station will take its place and the old one will be retro'ed in the recycling bins (no kidding).
In about 140,000 years, if some astronomical or ecological catastrophy doesn't intervene, the existing ice over the south pole will fall off into the Antarctic Ocean. (That will be quite the archaeological event, as all the sewage of the current and past pole stations has simply been pumped into the ice to freeze for future generations to find.)
What you would see if you went to the south pole station is two poles. One ACTUAL pole marker, the rod with the brass head, and one "ceremonial" pole marker, which is in a random spot somewhere near the station. This ceremonial pole is a red and white barber pole about a meter tall, topped with a silvered ball about a foot in diameter. When your president, religious leader, congressman, or dictator visits the south pole, he or she is scurried to this silvery globe to have their picture taken. Then they're hustled home because nobody likes people at the pole who don't do some kind of useful work, and dignitaries are liable to be treated like regular people, which would embarrass the American government.
There's a semicircle of flags around the barber pole and globe. These are the flags of all the nations that signed the International Antarctic Treaty, which defines the only actual law on the continent, most of which involve ecology, mining, and military movements, (read: no, no, and no, to pollution, mining, and military installations) and none of which involve theft of the pole itself.
Which brings us to this.
It is not illegal to steal the south pole.
However, in stealing the south pole one would inevitably incur the wrath of the local scientists and support workers, known affectionately as polies. And nobody fucks with polies. Here's why.
Polies don't behave like people fearful of scrutiny. They start out normal as all humans do, but they undergo a transformation few humans will ever have to endure in their lifetime.
To stand at the geographic south pole you rest your feet on two kilometers of ice covering a continent. Your altitude as registered on your GPS is something in the vicinity of 9,200 feet. Were you not at the bottom of the earth the air would be pretty thin if you weren't used to it. But because you are at the south pole, and the air is undergoing some strange geophysical effects, it usually feels like you're breathing air at 12,000 feet, which is to say, unless you're Nepalese, you're suffocating.
This happens for two reasons. One--the cold dense air at the south pole sinks and there is simply less air between you and outer space. Two--the spinning earth "flings" the air outward (upward) at the equator, thus thinning the air at the poles.
That thinner air never gets much warmer than -30F at the pole station in the summer. In the winter, it gets to -100F. (Polies have no concept of positive temperature. So if a polie says, "It's 60 degrees," he/she means -60F.) The humidity is always exactly zero percent. And as we all know, there's only one actual day per year at the south pole, one six-month period of sunshine, one six-month period of darkness.
These are strange and treacherous conditions for human survival. The human physiology changes after months in this environment. The body core temperature drops to 97F. The number of oxygen-carrying red corpuscles in the blood increases. The body desiccates. And most importantly, the mental attitude shifts to accomodate the polar lifestyle which involves constant light or dark and being bodily crammed into tiny living quarters with people who have no use for the laws and conduct of modern civilization.
So some things people do when they're changed by this environment may seem extreme to regular people. Even though there is plenty of booze at pole station*, polie winter-overs make stills and distill alcohol from a variety of household substances. Even though there is enough beer to sate an entire division of infantrymen for four months, polies make massive quantities of homebrew. Polies take vacations to dangerous under ice locations normal people would find as pleasant as accidental burial under twelve tons of frozen beef. Polies run around naked outside when it's cold enough to condense carbon dioxide. Polies drink slushies, grain alcohol with a splash of fruit syrup poured over a cup of ice hacked from the ice cap outside. A gob of spit freezes two inches from the lips with a loud crack at the temperatures that exist where polies have sex.
Historically speaking, polies have killed. Nobody likes to talk about this, but it's true.
If a polie catches you stealing the south pole, he or she will probably kill you. You won't see it coming. Your well-preserved body will be found by archaeologists 10,000 years from now.
It is not illegal to kill at the pole. There are no laws in Antarctica prohibiting it, and most Antarcticans would consider it just punishment and good form to accidentally run into you with a Caterpillar D9, drop you into a vat of liquid helium, or steal your clothes while you're showering and lock you outside for two minutes during a storm.
Given the potential for hellish retribution by polies whose main impression of you is as a potentially unwelcome consumer of precious supplies, one can't help but speculate: who would steal the south pole**? How could you abscond with one of the most identifiable objects in Antarctica when surrounded by Antarcticans who tend to know more about you than you do?
How in the name of everything holy does one abscond from a two-mile high featureless ice shelf, eight-hundred and fifty miles from the nearest human encampment?
Answer: on skis.
Unfortunately, all signs lead to the probability the south pole markers are stolen by strangers. Polar hoodlums. Each year adventurers from all over the world trek to the pole on skis, snowmobiles, and hang gliders***. It is most likely the pole gift shop did not provide a t-shirt or souvenir key-chain one of these adventurers found adequate reward for their 1600 mile round-trip trek, and he or she grabbed the pole on their way north.
*All people on the ice call "the" station at the south pole, Pole Station. Its official name is Scott-Amundsen South Pole Station. Ice people do not say the pole as in "Are you going to the pole?" They say simply, "pole", without the article. One goes to pole not the pole exactly in the same way people would say: "Are you going to McMurdo?" rather than, "Are you going to the McMurdo?"
**Why doesn't anyone steal the ceremonial south pole? The prevailing theory is that it's far too ugly and ridiculous to hock for services in a Filippino brothel.
***But not sky diving from planes. In an attempt to be the first to dive on the pole on January 1st, 2000 to celebrate the millennium, two sky divers misjudged the alitiude and literally plunged deep into the ice with their chutes unopened, thus ruining the new year's festivities with the ridiculous and useless expenditure of their lives, causing havoc with local logistics who had to expend labor, machine time and air cargo space to peel out the bodies and retro them north. However, their deaths did remove them effectively and finally from the list of pole thief suspects.
Sources & resources:
"Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez
"The Ice" by Steven J. Pyne
A long and partly sober conversation with a certain support worker with a really cool tattoo on her, um, hip, sort of.
"The Antarctic Sun" -- www.polar.org/antsun
"70 South" -- www.70south.com