The Coldest Place on Earth Hasn't Been Experienced by Humans


How cold can the surface of our planet physically get? And what’s the coldest place on Earth? When you first wake up in the morning, it may feel like everything that exists outside of your blanket is as cold as cold gets.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the places with the objectively coldest temperatures on the planet. And we also got in touch with two scientists who’ve studied extreme cold temperatures.

Near-surface Air Temperature vs. Surface Temperature

Ted Scambos is a polar geophysicist based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In an email exchange, he told us near-surface air temperature is “the temperature that a thermometer reads at 4.9 to 9.8 feet [1.5 to 3 meters] above the surface [of the Earth].”

“‘The reference height for formal measurements is 6 feet, 6 inches (2 meters) or so above the surface,” Scambos adds.

When you go higher or lower, the measured temperature at your location may change.

Surface temperatures are a different beast altogether. Speaking via email, Temple University geophysicist and polar scientist Atsuhiro Muto defined these as “temperatures of the physical surface of Earth, whether it be soil, water or ice.”

With that, let’s jump into extreme temperatures across the world.

9. Denali, Alaska, United States

The coldest temperature ever recorded in Denali National Park, previously known as Mt. McKinley, was minus 54 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 47.8 degrees Celsius).

8. Prospect Creek Park, Alaska, United States

The lowest temperature recorded in Alaska happened in 1971 when Prospect Creek Camp, now a clearing north of the Arctic Circle, hit minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 62.2 degrees Celsius). The high that day was minus 64 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53.3 degrees Celsius).

It’s unlikely that Alaska will hit such bone-chilling temperatures now. “There are many more surface observations in Interior Alaska now than in 1971 but hardly any are in places that could plausibly get to 80 below — which is not many places,” says Rick Thoman, an expert on Alaska’s climate who works at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

7. Yakutsk, Siberia, Russia

One of the world’s coldest cities, the temperature in Yakutsk dropped to minus 80.9 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 62.7 degrees Celsius) in 2023. January is usually the coldest month in the city.

6. Summit Camp, Greenland

Sitting at an elevation of 10,530 feet (3,210 meters), Summit Camp is a year-round research hub that the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 established in 1989. The average winter temperature is about minus 88 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 66.7 degrees Celsius) which increases to a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) in the summer.

If you’ve ever wondered if you could handle these cold temperatures while on assignment, Lora Koenig blogged about her 2010 experience at the research station. And turns out, she didn’t find the temperatures too unbearable. On a week that hit minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 38 degrees Celsius), she wrote:

“One of the most common questions I get when doing [fieldwork] in Greenland is: Are you cold? Well the answer, most of the time, is a resounding no. There is, however, one exception: My fingers often get very cold. Why am I not cold? Well mainly because we were lots of [clothes].”

Her everyday wear included items like a thin pair of thermal underwear pants, two thermal underwear tops, an insulated jacket, a down parka and more.

5. Oymyakon, Siberia, Russia

Oymyakon, which means “unfrozen water,” reaches an average temperature of minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius) in the winter. The lowest temperature ever recorded there was minus 96.16 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 71.2 Celsius).

Antarctica

This map of Antarctica shows the massive East Antarctic Plateau, which includes Dome Argus and Lake Vostok, two of the coldest places on record in the world. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.5)

4. Dome Argus, Antarctica

The coldest temperature ever recorded at Dome Argus was minus 116.5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 82.5 degrees Celsius) in July 2005. Dome Argus is home to an automatic weather station that Australia and China launched in conjunction.

3. Amundsen-Scott Station, Antarctica

At this U.S. research station, named after explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott, the temperature varies from minus 117 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 82.8 degrees Celsius) to 7.52 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 13.6 degrees Celsius).

The station is on an ice sheet at an elevation of 9,306 feet (2,835 meters). The ice sheet drifts about 33 feet (10 meters) every year.

Originally, the station accommodated 18 people during the winter and 33 in the summer, but it has expanded greatly throughout the years, with new buildings added. It now can house 50 people in the winter and 150 during the summer.

2. Vostok Station, Antarctica

Run by the Russian government — and previously, the USSR — Vostok Station is on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, just 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away from the geographic South Pole.

July 21, 1983, was a day for the record books. On that historic date in 1983, researchers working at the station measured one of the lowest near-surface air temperatures that’s ever been recorded: minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (or minus 89.2 degrees Celsius).

1. A High Ridge in East Antarctic Plateau, Antarctica

The coldest place on Earth is a high ridge located on the East Antarctic Plateau, where temperatures can fall to minus 136 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 93.2 degrees Celsius), which is what happened on August 10, 2010.

According to NASA, this region broke the previous record held by the Vostok Research Station in 1983.

East Antarctica

Scambos was the lead author of a 2018 study, which reported on “ultralow surface temperatures” in East Antarctica. Muto was one of its coauthors.

Published in the journal “Geophysical Research Letters,” the paper describes how Scambos, Muto and their colleagues used satellite sensors to investigate weather patterns on the East Antarctic Plateau.

Located at the center of the continent, the East Antarctic Plateau is where the geographic South Pole resides. But that’s not the only attraction. Dome Argus, the highest point of elevation in Eastern Antarctica, is also situated on the plateau. This icy spot looms 13,428 feet (4,093 meters) above sea level.

For decades, artificial satellites — including some built and maintained by NASA — have overseen the conditions on the East Antarctic Plateau.

Scambos, Muto and their colleagues went back and reviewed the relevant data gathered by these devices during the winters of 2004 through 2016.

In that time, the satellites observed surface temperatures of around minus 138 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 98 degrees Celsius) at roughly 100 shallow depressions on the plateau — all scattered across a “broad region” that includes Dome Argus but sits at a higher elevation than Vostok Station. These are some of the lowest surface temperatures ever recorded anywhere on Earth.

Muto stresses that because the data was collected by Earth-observing satellites, “no human being experienced these low temperatures.”

Necessary Conditions for a Record-low Temperature

Prolonged Darkness

Each year, the geographic South Pole and nearby areas undergo a “polar night.” That’s an extended period in which the sun never climbs above the horizon. The record-setting plateau temperatures Scambos and company wrote about in 2018 were observed during this dark stretch of the calendar — usually in July and August.

“The East Antarctic Plateau is so cold because of high altitude and the snow on the surface reflects most of the solar energy back, about 90 percent or more, to the atmosphere,” Muto says. “Plus, you have the polar nights during the winter when there is no solar energy at all. Also, because of the great distance from the coast, you rarely get warmer coastal air masses penetrating inland to bring the heat.”

Obviously, this is not an environment for the faint-hearted.

“It is a gigantic, white, flat expanse of bitter cold snow. The wind is ceaseless, the sky is a deeper blue than any place you’ve seen before. It is an isolated, eternal landscape,” Scambos explains.

Yet even here, extreme surface temperatures in the ballpark of minus 138 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 98 degrees Celsius) will only occur under just the right circumstances. Prolonged darkness alone isn’t enough.

Shallow Depressions

To bring the metaphorical thermostat all the way down to that low, low point, Scambos says there must also be “still air, zero clouds, incredibly dry atmosphere and you need to be sitting in a swale in the ice surface, a subtle depression of 6.5 to 9.8 feet [2 to 3 meters] depth and a couple miles across.” (Note that one mile is equal to 1.6 kilometers.)

Dips and valleys in the Antarctic ice sheet trap air that’s dense, dry and cold, even by South Pole standards. Given enough time, the trapped air cools down surface-level snow, along with some of the warmer air above it.

So there you have it. Shallow depressions in a high-elevation part of the East Antarctic Plateau can become the coldest places on the face of the Earth during their polar winter. That doesn’t make it any easier to get out of bed on a freezing morning.

Now That’s Interesting

Fossils left behind by prehistoric marine reptiles and even a few dinosaurs have been discovered in Antarctica.

Original article: The Coldest Place on Earth Hasn’t Been Experienced by Humans

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