Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.
By: Christopher C. Burt , 9:05 PM GMT on January 19, 2011
The Coldest Places on Earth
Being mid-January I thought it timely to present a survey of the world’s coldest places and temperatures measured thereat. Although not as contentious as extreme heat records, cold records have their issues as well. Should uninhabited places be part of the record? What about measurements reported from sinkholes (also known as dolines), or on mountaintops or during scientific expeditions? Below is a brief summary of some of the coldest places on earth and the temperatures measured there.
There is no debating that the highland interior of Antarctica is the coldest region on earth. Only a handful of research stations exist in this hostile environment and the Russian station at Vostok is the coldest of all.
Vostok Station is the most isolated scientific research site in the world located at an elevation of 11,444’ (3,488m) near the South Geomagnetic Pole (about 700 miles from the South Pole itself).
Weather records have been maintained here almost consistently since it was first established by the Soviets in 1958. It is manned by 25 researchers during the summer months and 13 during the winter. The world’s lowest observed surface air temperature was recorded on July 21, 1983 when a reading of -128.6°F (-89.2°C) was made. Another even colder reading of -132°F (-91°C) was rumored to have been attained during the winter of 1997 but this is unsubstantiated. The single coldest month was August 1987 with a mean temperature of -104°F (-75.4°C). The warmest on record for the site is a surprising 10°F above zero (-12.2°C) on January 11, 2002. Below is the climate chart for Vostok:
What the coldest temperature measured outside of Antarctica might be is debatable. An automated remote weather station on the Greenland’s ice cap apparently recorded -92.9°F (-69.4°C) on December 22, 1991 at Klinck site during a research project by the Space and Engineering Center of the University of Wisconsin, Madison between 1987-1992. The site was located at 10,187’ (3105m) at 72°18N, 40°28W and manually checked on an annual basis. The lowest observed temperature in Greenland was an -87°F (-66.1°C) reading made at Northice (a British research station in existence for just two years) on January 1, 1954. This site was located at an altitude of 7680’ (2341m) and 78°04’N, 38°29’W. Given the very short periods of record for both of the above sites it is reasonable to assume temperatures lower than -70°C (-94°F) have most likely occurred at some place and at some time or other on the higher elevations of the Greenland ice cap. Therefore, I would argue that this region is the 2nd coldest place on the planet.
The coldest permanently inhabited region of the world is unarguably the so-called ‘Pole of Cold’ in northeastern Siberia, centered around the towns of Oymyakon (many spellings) and Verkoyansk. For the record, Oymyakon has barely edged out Verkoyansk with a reading of -89.9°F (-67.7°C) on February 6, 1933 versus Verkoyansk’s -89.7°F (-67.6°C) on February 5 and 7, 1892. There has been quite a bit of confusion and misinformation surrounding these figures as colder readings from both sites have been claimed. Part of the confusion is from publication’s rounding off the figures to -68C° (-90.4°F), which is wrong, or relying on out-of-date and already discredited lower figures made by errors in past publications. For a very good complete analysis of this debate (and confirmation of the correct figures listed above) see On the Lowest Temperatures on Earth by Nina A. Stepanova, Monthly Weather Review pp. 6-10, January 1958.
Geoff Mackley throws a cup of boiling water into the air at Oymyakon on February 1, 2004 while the temperature stood at -53°F (-47°C). The water converted to ice crystals before reaching the ground. Photo by Mark Whetu.
So far this winter Oymyakon has bottomed out at -78° twice (most recently on January 6) and Verkoyansk at -69° on December 23 and 24.
Other Russian localities that have, at least anecdotally (I can not find dates or confirmation), reported temperatures of -80°F (-62.2°C) or lower include:
NORTH AMERICA (excluding Greenland)
As a result of many years of extensive scientific research at a plethora of locations in Alaska and the Canadian North, there have been several reports of temperatures that even exceed those minimums from Greenland. As most of you know, the official coldest readings for Canada and Alaska (and thus the U.S.A.) are -81°F (-62.8°C) at Snag, Yukon on February 3, 1947 and -79.8°F (-62.1°C) at Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska on January 23, 1971. A quick note about the Snag reading: this was an extrapolated figure since the thermometer only registered down to -80°F. The actual extrapolation was to -84°F but when the thermometer was calibrated it was found to be registering 3°F too cold, hence the final ‘official’ reading of -81°F was determined.
A map of the coldest temperatures (F°) recorded in Yukon Province and surrounding areas during the February 1947 cold spell. Image courtesy of The Weather Doctor Almanac, Vancouver, Canada and originally reproduced in Weatherwise magazine.
Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska is no longer inhabited (it was a station along the Alaska Pipeline off the James Dalton Highway) and little is known about the history of the -79.8°F reading. On the same day the hamlet of Coldfoot (40 miles north of Prospect Creek Camp) a storefront thermometer reported a reading of -82°F (-63.3°C) which has not been accepted as official (the official reading was just -74°F). The coldest ‘official’ temperature measured in Alaska at an inhabited site was the -78° (-61.1°C) at Fort Yukon on January 14, 1934.
Some other much colder unofficial temperatures have been measured in Canada and Alaska. The most extreme is a -100°F (-73.3•C) apparently recorded by a thermometer that was left at a location about 15,000’ (4,572m) high on the slopes of Mount McKinley by the U.S. Army Natick Laboratory for a period of 19 years ending in 1969. It is not known, of course, just when this temperature may have occurred.
More recently, a scientific study undertaken by the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Alberta (see the journal Arctic vol.35, no.4, pp. 537-541, December 1982) concerning the effects of cold air drainage on temperatures in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies measured -95.8°F (-71°C) and -92.2°F (-69°C) at two study plots near Fort Nelson, British Columbia on the night of January 6-7, 1982. The airport at Fort Nelson recorded just -43.6°F (-42.0°C) that night.
A chart and caption concerning the remarkable temperatures measured during the scientific study related above.
In the contiguous United States, a similar on-going study in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah has so far resulted in measureing an absolute minimum temperature of -69.3°F (-56.3°C) at Peter Sinks on February 1, 1985 (considered the official state record for Utah) and only .4°F warmer than the official coldest reading for the lower 48 states of -69.7° (-56.5°C) registered at Rogers Pass, Montana on January 20, 1954. Another site near Peter Sinks in Utah, Middle Sinks, recorded -62°F (-52.2°C) that same night. These sinks have measured the following monthly extremes (compared to the official monthly extremes recorded at other contiguous U.S. sites):
We see a problem here where the -69.3°F at Peter Sinks has been accepted as ‘official’ but not the other readings which are apparently record-breakers for the months of March, May, and September.
The coldest temperature at an inhabited site in the lower 48 (Rogers Pass consists of just a cabin or two, and the sinks in Utah use RAWS thermometers) is the -66°F (-54.4°C) recorded on February 9, 1933 at West Yellowstone, Montana. Confusion surrounds the actual location of the site that recorded this reading since in 1933 the town of West Yellowstone did not exist and the -66°F was reported by the Riverside Ranger Station that was located where the town of West Yellowstone eventually came to life (now the principle ‘gateway’ town the Park). The USWB Climatological Data by Sections, February 1933 had lumped this location into its Wyoming data section under ‘Yellowstone’ even though it was, in fact, located in Montana not Wyoming. A portion of Yellowstone N.P. is also in Idaho. The Riverside Ranger Station no longer exists but the current location of the weather station in West Yellowstone is located at the same site as the ranger station (and so you can see an error on my map below where I differentiated between the two!).
The coldest region of Europe is, of course, that portion of European Russia west of the Ural Mountains. The village of Ust’-Shchugor holds the record for Europe with a -72.6°F (-58.1°C) reading on December 31, 1978. Also in this region is Pechora that has been as cold as -68.8°F (-56°C) measured on February 9, 1946.
In Western Europe Sweden has reported the absolute coldest minimums although there is some controversy as too what the actual country record is. According to the Swedish meteorological organization the official low is -63.4° (-53°C) recorded on a private thermometer in Malgovik, Vasterbotten County on December 13, 1941 and certified as reliable by the national met service at that time. A colder unofficial reading of -65.2°F (-54°C) was also recorded in the courtyard of the church in Karesuando. The coldest reading made by an official thermometer in Sweden (and thus Western Europe is -62.7° (-52.6°C) at Vuoggatjalme, Norboten County on February 2, 1966.
Extremely cold temperatures have, like in the U.S.A., been recorded in sinkholes (also called ‘dolines’) in various other Western European countries. In Germany a -50.6°F (-45.9°C) was reported in a doline at Funtensee Oberbayem, Upper Bavaria on December 24, 2001. Not to be outdone by Germany, Austria has recorded -63.6°F (-52.6°C) in a doline at Grunloch sometime in February or March 1932. This is just shy of the -62.5°F (-52.5°C) recorded in a sinkhole at Glattalp, Schwyz Canton, in Switzerland on February 7, 1991. Just recently last December 27th, -54.9°F (-48.3°C) was measured in a sinkhole in the Italian Alps.
Although all these temperature measurements from sinkholes/dolines are almost surely accurate it is debatable how to fit them in with the official records made in inhabited places.
The coldest temperatures measured in South America (and thus in the Southern Hemisphere (outside of the Antarctic region) is apparently a reading of -40°F (-40°C) recorded at Puesto Viejo, Chile on June 21, 2002. Although this figure has not yet been officially accepted by the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) it appears to be reliable according to Chilean meteorological authorities. The WMO official record for South America is a -27°F (-32.8°C) at Sarmiento, Argentina on June 1, 1907. However, colder readings from Argentina have been reported by the Servicio Meteorologico Nacional (of Argentina) including an absolute minimum of -38.2°F (-39°C) in the Valle de Los Patos Superior, a cold high mountain valley in the Andes near the Chilean border. This is an uninhabited site and it seems the measurement was made during some kind of mountain expedition. The lowest reading from an inhabited site is reported to be -31.5°F (-35.3°C) at Maquinchao, Rio Negro Province on July 17, 1991. This reading, however, is no more reliable than the Sarmiento reading and should be viewed with suspicion. The lowest undisputed temperature from a town in Argentina is -14.3°F (-25.7°C) at Perito Moreno in July 2000.
Africa’s official minimum temperature is -11°F (-23.9°C) at Ifrane, Morocco on February 11, 1935. This is even a colder reading than has ever been reported from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro (anecdotal reports indicating readings as low as -8°F/-22°C having apparently been measured there).
AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
The records for Australia and New Zealand (undisputed!) are respectively: -9.4°F (-23°C) at Charlotte Pass, New South Wales, Australia on June 29, 1994 and -6.9°F (-21.6°C) at Ophir, Otago Province, New Zealand on July 3, 1995.
Should temperature readings made in sinkholes/dolines, or uninhabited mountain regions be considered ‘official’? If not, how should they be accounted for in the public record?
Should temperatures recorded in sites like this sinkhole in Peter Sinks, Utah, which recorded -69.3°F in February 1985, be considered ‘official’? Photo thanks to Tim Wright and Zane Stephens.
KUDOS: Thanks to Maximiliano Herrera, Trent McCotter, and Tim Wright and Zane Stephens (for the Utah sinks data).
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