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Polar Mail

December 1, 2007

Hi Hugh,

What's the currency down there? I've seen some Antarctic money for sale as a collector's item. Does each base use its country's native cash? Should I pay $4.25 US for a $2 Antarctic bill? How come Amundsen got stuck on the five while Scott gets the 10? It seems Amundsen is always getting the short shrift for his accomplishment.

Thanks for the investment tip!

Christy Reed

Hi Christy,

Thanks for your question. Here at McMurdo Station we use American dollars, though there's not a whole lot to buy. A small, bustling store sells mainly Antarctic mementos, clothing and hats, plus small essentials like sunscreen, lip balm, and potato chips. It also has a DVD and video rental store, and it sells soda, beer, and wine. There are even two ATMs for people who didn't bring enough cash!

Just a mile or so away from us is the New Zealand-run Scott Base, a much smaller collection of huts painted kiwi green. I presume they spend the New Zealand dollar (worth about 75 U.S. cents), though I haven't checked this out yet. Americans are only allowed to visit on Thursday evenings to keep them from overrunning the place.

The currency you mention is more of a souvenir, I think, and I haven't seen any down here. I couldn't find anyone who knew of a time when Antarctica had its own currency - which makes sense considering that Antarctica has never had its own national status and has never belonged to a single nation. But you're right, it's something of an injustice to put Capt. Robert Falcon Scott on the $10 and Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who arrived at the South Pole a full month before Scott, on the $5. Thanks again for your question, and hope you enjoy the rest of our dispatches!

Hugh Powell

Has there been any life at all? Insects blown to the icy heights? Spiders, fruit flies, etc in McMurdo proper? Even signs of other climes like traces of dirt or sand that have been blown over? Or is it nothing but ice and snow...

Thanks for your time and answers!

Charles Eldermire
Brooktondale, NY

Hi Charles,

Thanks for your question. There are very few living things around McMurdo Station other than busy people trying to get science done. The nearest penguins are 20 miles away at Cape Royds, though they do stray over here occasionally (on the day we landed, the ground crew had to shoo two of them off the runway). I've also seen a few Weddell seals napping near cracks in the sea ice. They're enormous, but so is Antarctica, so they often end up looking like little slugs in the distance.

As for creepy crawlies, I haven't found anything yet. The U.S. Antarctic Program is extremely concerned about seeds and insects arriving in shipments from up north, though. There's no plant life at McMurdo (at least, not outside of the greenhouse) so any animals that did arrive would not live long if they went outside. But with global climate change likely to make things warmer, this could change one day. The USAP wants to make sure we don't accidentally introduce any pests to this fragile continent.

Ross Island is very rocky, so there's dirt and volcanic gravel everywhere. Some of it makes it out onto the ice, especially in the lee (downwind) of the islands - you can actually see the dust deposits on a lot of the satellite images of the area (the U.S. Geological Survey is a great place to find maps). But elsewhere, it's pretty much white on white, or white on blue depending on how cloudy it is. Thanks again for your question, and have fun reading the rest of the dispatches!

Hugh Powell