How Cold is Cold???


It’s really a matter of perspective. Folks from Key West Florida wince and grab blankets if the temperature goes below 50 degrees F. What we wouldn’t do for a low of 50 degrees F right now! And then there’s the folks from Sweden. They simply don’t understand what our basic problem is. They point out that we almost never go below 0 degrees F; they put up with that on a regular basis in the winter. So it’s really a matter of what you’re used to. Or is it? Is there some place on Earth where everyone would agree is colder than cold?

First we might want to look at what actually affects the temperatures we have on Earth. Obviously the Sun is the source of our heat, but the Earth itself has factors which cause the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth to vary. Our distance from the sun varies, but this does not account for the temperature variation. During our summers in the northern hemisphere, we are farthest from the sun, but are tilted toward it. The Earth is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees, which results in the northern and southern hemispheres being tilted toward the sun at times, and away from the sun at other times.

Continentality, the aspect that allows more extreme temperature variations near the center of a continent far away from a water mass, is another important consideration.

Volcanic eruptions can cause weather disturbances also. When there are severe eruptions, such as the volcano Tambora in the Dutch West Indies in April 1815, a huge thick cloud of ash obscured the sun in Europe and America, and was no doubt related to crop failures in what was called the "year without a summer" which was followed by the severe winter of 1816.

Knowing what factors influence temperature might give us a clue in our search for the coldest spot on Earth. The United States alone has recorded some impressive and bone chilling colds. In January 1971, Prospect Creek Camp in Alaska, recorded a temp of -79.8 F. In January of 1954, Rogers Pass in Montana recorded a low of -69.7 F. These were fleeting extremes however; average temperatures for the winter are much less extreme. The lowest average winter temp for the US is -15.6 F on Alaska’s Barter Island.

There are quite a few places, such as Russia, Switzerland, and Norway, which can top those average winter temps. Can you think of some colder places?

How about the North pole? We certainly have no problem envisioning lots of snow, year round, cold wind blowing. Well, actually, there is no real land at the north pole. There is only a constant cover of ice over a deep, cold sea. But nobody lives there except some big guy in a red suit and Frosty.

On the continent of Asia in Eastern Siberia, lies the town of Oimyakon, located on the Indigirka River. Populated by 4,000 people, it is the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth. Here, some of the world's coldest temperatures are recorded every year; they average about -60 F, sometimes falling to -90 degrees F.

Well now, you say, that has to be horribly cold. NO place could be worse than that, right? Wrong! The spot that is worse is the south pole. At the South Pole, there is a land mass, the continent of Antarctica, so large that it accounts for nearly ten percent of the world’s entire land mass. It is a barren ice and snow covered land, where average temperatures are 35 degrees F colder than those of the North Pole. Antarctica holds the record for the world’s lowest recorded temperature, a whopping -129 degrees F, at Vostok Antarctica, on July 21, 1983. The average annual temperature there is a chilling -57.5 degrees F. And what was the highest temperature ever recorded on Antarctica? How about a balmy 5.5 degrees F.

These temperatures in Antarctica are so horrid, that incredible tales have been told of expeditions to this frozen land. The British explorer Apsley Cherry- Garrard made several journeys to Antarctica and reported conditions so severe that clothing would freeze in place within 15 seconds of exiting his sleeping bag in the morning. The clothing would hold that frozen position all day. He also reported the nerves freezing in his teeth and his teeth splitting to pieces! Another explorer to the Antarctic, Paul Siple, reported having moisture from his eyelashes freeze his eyelids shut! One has to wonder why anyone would want to go there! Such conditions make our winter climate look downright balmy.


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© Copyright 1996 Kathy Miles and Charles F. Peters II

"How Cold is Cold???" was published in the Daily Local News 2/4/96.

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