The ATM at the Bottom of the Earth

ATMs — automated teller machines — have become a ubiquitous feature in the lives of most people in developed nations. There are so many of them that, if you need cash, there’s probably one somewhere nearby. Even if you go to your own bank to deposit a check, it’s pretty common to go to the ATM instead of the flesh-and-blood teller. It would be downright weird to be somewhere without same-day access to a cash machine.

And Antarctica is no exception.

According to Australian government’s Antarctic division, there are a few hundred to a few thousand people living on the southernmost continent at any given time, with more during the summer than the winter. Most of the people on Antarctica live at McMurdo Station, a U.S.-run research facility. McMurdo Station doesn’t have all the amenities that you’d find in most other places, of course, but it’s not all work and no play. McMurdo has a general store which sells all sorts of souvenirs, movies, and of course, liquor. (Here are some pictures.) There was once a bowling alley (pics) but it was dismantled in 2009. There is a cafeteria-style dining hall and a handful of bars and clubs, too. (It should be no surprise that alcoholism is a major problem in the area, but that’s another story.)

Most of that requires money and often, cash is a good option. But storing months-worth of money in your Antarctic apartment is impractical and kind of dumb, so those living at McMurdo need access to cash on demand. There are no banks at the station, so the solution comes in the form of two ATM provided by Wells Fargo.


(Image via NASA)

Only one of the machines is operational at any point in time, with the other serving as a backup — a necessary redundancy due to the machines’ remote location. Serving the ATMs is, to put it lightly, difficult. After all, you can’t simply tell a mechanic that he or she has to grab a coat and go off to Antarctica. In 2010, David Parker, a vice president in Wells Fargo’s ATM division, spoke with blog about the process of maintaining and fixing the machines — and the risks involved:

You know, the other thing too that you may find interesting–I don’t know how much you know about folks that need to go down to Antarctica–it’s a huge process to do it. So when we’re preparing for the vendor visit, it’s like a ten-month process. [. . .] The reason being is, they obviously go in the off-season when it’s obviously warmer because no planes fly onto the ice in their winter months. And so anybody that goes to Antarctica has to be cleared with a physical, a dental, and a psychological evaluation, because if for some reason the plane can’t get out, you’re trapped down there until the next season.

Despite the difficulties of providing banking services to the Antarctic, there’s no reason for people living there to open up accounts with Wells Fargo. According to NCR, the vendor who services the machines on behalf of the bank, there are no fees for using the ATMs.


Bonus Fact: One thing you can’t buy at McMurdo Station? A haircut. But don’t worry, you don’t have to grow your hair long if you’re there. McMurdo has a barber shop but, according to NASA’s page on the Station’s amenities, getting a haircut is free.

From the Archives: Swipe Scam: A hard-to-detect (if you don’t know about it) way that criminals can use ATMs to steal your banking information.

Take the Quiz: Seven nations have made territorial claims in Antarctica. Name them.

Related: Your very own ATM, $2,300 or so. Cash not included. Also, “Analysis of the Use of Wind Energy to Supplement the Power Needs at McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica,” a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for about $15. It’s unclear which one you are more likely to buy.