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Another ‘Pole of Cold’ Discovered? The Case of Orlovka, Kazakhstan

By: Christopher C. Burt, 7:20 PM GMT on January 14, 2013

Another ‘Pole of Cold’ Discovered? The Case of Orlovka, Kazakhstan

Ace temperature detective and climatologist Maximiliano Herrera may have discovered a remote place in Kazakhstan that has one of the most extreme climates in the world. This is a guest blog courtesy of Max.

Orlovka, Kazakhstan

A new potential cold pole has been discovered, it's a remote and almost universally unknown village called Orlovka, located in the extreme eastern part of Kazakhstan near the border of Mongolia. Orlovka is sandwiched between mountains in a deep valley at 1,100 m (3,600‘) elevation.

A couple of map images showing the location of Orlovka. The top map shows the overview with Russia to the north and Mongolia and China to the east. The bottom map shows the terrain surrounding Orlovka.

Orlovka currently has a population of only 25 and is so remote that there is no postal or telegraph service, nor shops or hospitals. Even the vast majority of Kazakhs have never heard about it. Nevertheless, Orlovka hosts a meteorological station with one observer in charge of the instruments. Apparently, Orlovka’s meteorological station has been operating since 1908 with very few gaps in its POR. There was an incident in 1919 when the local observer was arrested and taken to a jail in Katon Karagai, but promptly released after being indentified by the local police chief as the observer of the Orlovka meteorological station. The weather data of Orlovka has never been digitalized (to my knowledge) and the Russian Meteorological Institute, Pogoda (which has a database of thousands of former Soviet meteorological stations), does not have a complete data series for Orlovka. Apparently, the only complete data set for the site is that which rests in a small archive in the remote mountainous village itself. The local observer communicates with the national Institute of Meteorology of Kazakhstan (Kazhydromet) and provides them regularly with data. How has this mysterious village come to our attention just recently?

This may be a photo of the actual site in Orlovka that has been making the weather observations over the many years (since 1908). Photo by Andrey Voskressensky.

Amazing temperature of -59°C (-74.2°F) reported from Orlovka this past December

During the exceptional cold wave during the second week of this December which affected Central Asia (and especially Kazakhstan), the weather observer in Orlovka communicated to Astana (capital of Kazakhstan and base for Kazhydromet (the national meteorological agency) that on December 19th the village recorded a minimum temperature of -59C (-74.2°F), its coldest reading since its all-time record of -62C (-79.6°F) set in January 1969. The astonishing figure from 1969 happens to coincided with other records set in the region during that winter including the national records for Turkmenistan (-35.0°C/-31.0°F at Chesme); Uzbekistan (-39.8°C/-39.6°F at Qaraqalpaqiya); and Afghanistan (-52.2°C/-62.0°F at Shahrak). According to Astana-based meteorologist Alexandra Dyukareva, the thermal amplitude (difference between lowest and highest temperatures on record) for this village is extreme, with a record high of 40C (104°F) in the summer and its record low of -62°C (-79.6°F) in the winter. If this amazing data is reliable, Orlovka would lay claim as the 5th most extreme place on earth temperature-wise with only four other sites in eastern Siberia more extreme. (See list of top five sites with the most extreme range of temperature further below in the blog).

Are these temperatures from Orlovka reliable?

The answer is theoretically yes, but that does not guarantee that they are. Orlovka has an almost unique location, being at high elevation in the Asian semi-desert steppes, but also surrounded by taller mountains, unlike Mongolia that is mostly a highland. Mongolia’s extreme lowest temperatures are between -56C (-69°F) and -58C (-72°F), and its 4 coldest temperatures on record all occurred in late December. During the December 2012 cold wave (and also during the January 1969 cold wave) the extreme lowest temperatures in Mongolia didn't get close to its record values, but we must note that the mountains in the extreme east of Kazakhstan (which are too high for the dense and cold air to overtake), mean it is possible that Orlovka is more affected by Central Asian cold waves emanating from the west rather than cold waves emanating from Mongolia and Siberia to the east. Kazakhstan lowest official temperatures in January 1969 and December 2012 were around -45C in the lowlands. Considering that Orlovka lies at over 1,100 meters (3,600’) in the bottom of a valley, and it is closer to the eastern Yakutia cold poles of Russia, than it is conceivable that Orlovka’s temperatures may be achieved given all the orographic factors and combined with perfect meteorological conditions. Of course this is just an hypothesis, but it's not possible at this point to be sure.

This photo is a view of the valley in which Orlovka is located. Photo by Andrey Voskressensky.

The also remarkable summer heat of Orlovka

Regarding the record high of 40C (104°F) at 1,100m (3,600’) in Orlovka; this is also a very extreme value. Mongolia’s highlands have recorded similar temperatures at similar elevations in the southeastern region of the country bordering China, but not in the western areas near the Kazakh border. However, again, the location of Orlovka on the bottom of a valley compared to a highland might favor compression of the air also in summer as it allows for greater radiational cooling in the winter.

Comparing Orlovka to Russia’s Pole of Cold’ in Siberia

Now, let's compare Orlovka with Oymyakon in Russia’s Siberian ‘Pole of Cold’, which has a similar topography. Oymyakon lowest temperature on record is -67.7C (-89.9°F) versus Orlovka’s -62C (-79.6°F). The difference sounds plausible, since Oymyakon is also located in the bottom of a valley at 700 m (2,300’) 400m lower than Orlovka but at a latitude of 63.3°N versus the 48.7°N of Orlovka. The extreme highest at Oymyakon is 34.6C (94.3°F) versus 40C (104°F) at Orlovka, despite being 400m higher in elevation, but the difference in latitude is huge, 15 degrees further south and more influenced by the hot and dry air of the Northern China desert areas.

Here is a list of the top five places in the world with the most extreme range of temperature (actually six places since Orlovka would tie Amga for 5th spot). All of these locations with the exception of Orlovka are in Siberia:

1. Verkoyansk: 104.9°C (188.8°F) range: -67.6°C (-89.7°F), 37.3°C (99.1°F)

2. Batamaj: 103.7°C (186.7°F) range: -65.7°C (-86.3°F), 38.0’C (100.4°F)

3. Yakutsk: 102.8°C (184.3°F) range: -64.4°C (-83.2°F), 38.4°C (101.1°F)

4. Oymyakon: 102.3°C (184.2°F) range: -67.7°C (-89.9°F), 34.6°C (94.3°F)

5. Orlovka (maybe): 102.0° range (183.6°F) : -62.0°C, (-79.6°F), 40.0°C (104.0°F)

5 (tied). Amga: 102.0° (183.6°F) range: -63.0°C (-81.4°F), 39.0°C (102.2°F)


If the data for Orlovka is correct, we have identified an exceptional and almost unique place of temperature extremes. It will be up to the Kazakhstan Institute of Meteorology to send a team to verify the accuracy of the Orlovka station if we want to know for sure just how rare the site may be weather-wise.

Maximiliano Herrera

Extreme Weather Temperature

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.