Imagine living in a place so cold that you don’t dare take a breath without a scarf and balaclava to protect you, because the air would freeze your lungs. Just imagine living in a place where your spit crackles and turns to frost in the air, and spilled hot coffee freezes before it hits the ground. And all that happens at a balmly -40 degrees! The coldest places on earth are much colder.
The coldest place on earth is somewhere in the depths of Antarctica. No one knows exactly how cold it can get in Antarctica, because only a few scattered science stations are inhabited year-round. However, on July 21, 1983, Russia’s Vostok Station measured a temperature of -89.2 degrees Celsius, the coldest temperature ever measured on this earth. Antarctica is in the southern hemisphere, so its seasons are reversed and July is the depth of winter.
Alone of all the species of the world, the emperor penguin chooses this place and time of year to bring new life into the world. It is so cold that the eggs cannot be allowed to make contact with the ground for more than a few seconds, lest they freeze and crack and die.
Second place goes to a Russian city. For six months of the year, Siberia earns its reputation as a frozen wasteland, but some parts are definitely less habitable than others. Omyakon village, in eastern Siberia, has nine bitter months of winter. During all that time, the AVERAGE temperature outside is -71.2 degrees Celsius. At these temperatures, a refrigerator has to be heated to work!
Third place goes to Canadian Forces Station Alert, far above the Arctic Circle on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island. At just 817 kilometres from the North Pole, CFS Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world. It’s so far north that CFS Alert is actually closer to Moscow than to Ottawa! In late November 1977, the official recorded temperature was -62 degrees Celsius, with a wind chill of -79 degrees Celsius. Typical winter temperatures at CFS Alert during the polar night are in the -40s. Despite the bitter cold, the 2010 Olympic Winter Games torch relay passed through Alert on November 8, 2009.
Fourth place goes to Eismitte, in the middle of the Greenland glacier just east of CFS Alert. During a year-long scientific expedition from 1930-31, European scientists found July to be the warmest month, with average temperatures at a cozy -12.2 degrees Celsius. However, the temperature became a bit more chilly in February, averaging out at -47.2 degrees Celsius. There are no permanent inhabitants on the Greenland glacier. All its settlements are along the coast.
For fifth place, let’s return back to the other side of the Great White North. The tiny village of Snag, located just south of Beaver Creek in the Yukon Territory, holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in North America. On February 3, 1947, thermometers plunged to -63 degrees Celsius. In fact, in nearly all of interior Canada from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut south to Winnipeg commonly get at least a month of unrelenting -40 and colder overnight temperatures, and that’s before factoring in wind chill from winds that can reach 100 kilometres an hour.
However, most of the coldest average temperatures in Canada happened several decades ago. Ever since the 1970s, the Canadian Arctic has become a lot warmer than it used to be. It’s becoming common in the summer for the Yukon to be warmer than Southwestern Ontario, the “banana belt” of Canada. In Nunuvat and neighbouring Greenland, December temperatures were consistently above freezing. As of January 2011, most major Arctic bodies of water had not yet frozen over, which is almost unheard of. Even at CFS Alert, the last five winters were the warmest on record.
An honourable mention goes to a pipeline camp in Prospect Creek, Alaska. On January 23, 1971, temperatures at the camp dropped to -62.1 degrees Celsius, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States.
By comparison, dry ice becomes gaseous carbon monoxide at -56.4 degrees Celsius. Even most of Mars would be downright balmy!