McMurdo is the largest research station on the continent. Given its size, there are quite a few mundane aspects of everyday life back home that have cropped up here. This includes the need to make occasional cash transactions.
As of this writing, the McMurdo station store accepts cash and cards. The post office accepts only cards. Bars accept only cash. Haircuts accept only cash. I know I’m going to regret posting this, since it’ll likely change in future years as technology evolves.
Different stations have different policies. Palmer and Pole each have their own unique set of cash vs. card guidelines.
Side note: please, please, in the future, once I’ve long since forgotten about this blog, please read the official USAP participant guide! I cannot stress this enough – do not plan your deployment based on the writings of a random Internet stranger.
I am writing about this because I find mundane things fun and whimsical! Not because I want to be the authoritative source of information on how McMurdo operates.
So – do you really have to plan your entire deployments’ worth of cash transactions in advance? Are people really flying down here with hundreds of dollars in cash?
No need! You can just stop by the McMurdo ATMs, located at one end of “Highway 1” in Building 155.
Yes, we have our very own pair of Wells Fargo ATMs here, to meet the cash dispensing needs of the 1,000+ people who call McMurdo home during the summer.
Just like doing laundry, withdrawing cash is a surprisingly mundane and… normal (?) experience. Here at the bottom of the world, thousands of miles from civilization, we can still stop by the ATM, withdraw cash, and buy postcards at the station store.
In fact, the only thing that would tip you off that you’re even in Antarctica is the longer-than-average wait time to authorize the session. I know next-to-nothing about ATM data transmission protocols, so I can only assume they’re…. “chatty”, i.e. lots of roundtrips. There’s enough bandwidth for critical stuff like ATMs, but there’s no getting around the high latency.
If you can tolerate a few extra seconds of waiting, the experience is just what you’d expect. Insert card, enter PIN, select amount, receive cash, take receipt. The ATM owner doesn’t even charge a fee, though your bank’s own policies may vary. It’s a reasonable gesture, seeing as our closest alternative option is thousands of miles away.
Speaking of receipts, here’s a genuine Wells Fargo withdrawal receipt, straight out of the machine:
Cash withdrawal receipt from the McMurdo ATM.
Wells Fargo has a handful of subcontract awards for maintaining the ATMs. There’s no publicly-available information available beyond just this, but I imagine it must be a cool gig.
USASpending.gov has a decent breakdown of the primary Antarctic Support Contract (NSFDACS1219442) and some of the subcontract awards, including a few to Wells Fargo:
The most interesting thing about the McMurdo ATMs is how uninteresting they are. I love normal routines in strange contexts, and withdrawing cash in Antarctica is a prime example.
I hope others find this as interesting as I do.
Until next time!