The coldest town on Earth

Living In the Coldest City In the World
Living In the Coldest City In the World

Imagine a town so cold that low temperatures in the -60s are considered, well, "normal", in the winter months. Yes, you read that right, minus 60s!

The mere mention of "Siberia" is synonymous with extreme cold in the lexicon of meteorologists.

Oymyakon (OIM-yah-cone), Russia, a village of just under 500 residents in northeast Siberia, is widely considered the world's coldest permanently inhabited town.

On Feb. 6, 1933, an observer, there, measured a temperature of -89.8 degrees Fahrenheit! This is a full 10 degrees colder than the U.S. cold record of -79.8 degrees F at Prospect Creek, Alaska on Jan. 23, 1971. (Incidentally, the record coldest temperature measured on Earth was at the Russian South Pole research station of Vostok, Antarctica (-128.6 deg. F) on July 21, 1983.)

According to Weather Underground's Christopher Burt (Wunderblog), unofficial temperatures as cold as -108 degrees F have been measured in Oymyakon. Mr. Burt says there's no record of temperatures rising above zero degrees F between December 1 and March 1!

Even Alaska's coldest interior valleys may only suffer through temperatures in the -40s or colder for, say, a week or two (no minor task, of course) before there's a "warmer" break. No such luck in a Siberian winter!

(MORE: See Oymyakon's monthly temperatures)

Why is it so cold for such an extended period of time in Oymyakon?

River valley: Cold air is more dense and, thus, settles into the lower elevations at night.

Surrounded by mountains: Cold air drains down the slopes of the mountains and is trapped in the valley. The mountains form a U-shape, with the open side of the letter "U" pointed north.

Far northern latitude: At roughly 63 degrees north latitude, there's only about 3 hours of sunshine around the winter solstice.

Persistent snow cover: While precipitation is generally light in the moisture-starved frigid cold air mass, what snow does fall, stays put, reflecting the sun's limited energy.

Ironically, the name "Oymyakon" in the native Siberian tongue means "unfrozen patch of water", named for the thermal hot spring nearby.

How does this cold affect every day life? Let's take a look at the resiliency of those who call the "Pole of Cold" home.

Bolot Bochkarev, CEO of Yakutia Image LLC, is a journalist, guide, and native of the nearby city of Yakutsk, Russia, the capital of the Russian Republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutia. Mr. Bochkarev blogs to and leads tours through the "Pole of Cold" region. Oymyakon is a one-day drive from Yakutsk.

What Mr. Bochkarev considers "ordinary life" in the Siberian winter may amaze you. On the next few pages you'll find a summary of my Q&A with him.

What is the coldest temperature you've experienced?

"Frankly, I've never paid attention to the measuring of temperature before. So, I can't really say what the lowest temperature I've ever experienced was. When I started replying (to) questions about the current temperatures, I did really get interested in the weather. So, officially - when I had the thermometer - I registered my personal record at the mark of -57.1C (-70.8F) in Tomtor, a village located near Oymyakon, two years ago."

What temperatures actually feel extremely cold to you?

"The cold in my area is dry. I mean, no wind factor. So, even when it is much below minus 50 degree Centigrade, it is not so bad. If there would be winds... even at -35C or higher even, it is already disaster. In my case, I would prefer to have the extreme, but dry (lack of windy) cold, than mild winter weather with winds."

(Jonathan adds) In another blog post, Mr. Bochkarev was asked what type of thermometers work best in this extreme cold?

"We, ordinary residents of Yakutia, use mainly mercury-in-glass thermometers. If to be more precise, they must have mercury-thallium alloy, that protect from freezing. Nevertheless, their solidification (freezing) point is -61.1°C.

Such thermometers are mainly produced in the Moscow area, but we buy them in Yakutsk, though it is already rare to see them at stores.

There are some red-liquid-in-glass thermometers designed for tourists, but they are not accurate and locals say it was one entrepreneur's cheap try to meet travelers' demand."

Next, Mr. Bochkarev touches on some of the every day life challenges in a Siberian winter.

What are some of the every-day challenges of living in this extreme cold?

"For a regular elder, the challenge is to bring kids to schools, kindergartens, or somewhere else. If we don't use personal vehicles in the winter (keep them in the garages till the summer), we need to order taxi all the time. We don't let our little kids to play outdoor at all, as the cold weather brings many respiratory diseases, the worst one in my opinion is pneumonia.

(Jonathan interjects) The only school in Oymyakon is known to close only when temperatures dip below -52 deg. Celsius (or -61.6 deg. F).

"Praise god, there are many indoor activities for kids now. Nowadays, apart from educational things, sports and cinema, there are Internet, X-box, and all the modern entertainment.

It's a big challenge also for street sellers, especially in the fish market. They need to spend the whole work daytime outside.

To feel good in the winter, it's certainly a must to have good thick warm clothes. We prefer to have fur clothes - hats, coats, boots (reindeer or moose skin boots), gloves. That's a big challenge, as they cost big money. For instance, fur coats come for $1500 and higher. Ladies prefer to have the expensive stylish coats, which might costs as high as 100,000 rubles (~$3300). Natural fur works good in our cold winter conditions. Artificial fur is not good at all.

The cold is also a challenge for water/heat providers. They start preparing their system and houses for the winter already in June - checking the whole pipe system and replacing weak pipes."
How do you keep vehicles in good working order in this cold?

Mr. Bochkarev answers this in a blog post from Oct. 2009:

"Local drivers also put a woolen cover on the hood and another one on the engine, electrics and all other stuff under the hood. They double-glaze as well, especially the windshield. This measure prevents glasses from being frozen.

It is obligatory to keep the engine running all the time when the car is outside in the winter period. The engine might be switched off only, when the vehicle is inside a heated garage. If the engine stopped, the accumulator will be frozen in a moment. In such cases, if no garages around, the accumulator is recommended to be warmed over bonfire or by a torch, and the metal protection shield under the engine needs to be heated up as well."

(Jonathan adds) Yes, you read that correctly. You would need to set a bonfire to warm your vehicle sufficiently to start it if you leave it outside, or it stops running.

Let's delve into the local diet next.

What is the typical Yakutian diet? Is there any food that helps "retain heat" in the Siberian winter?

"Interesting question. Actually, Yakutians love the cold food, i.e. the frozen raw Arctic fish (white salmon, whitefish), frozen raw horse liver, but they are considered to be delicasy. In the daily life, we like eating the soup with meat. The meat is a must. It helps our health much."

(Jonathan adds) Crops can't be grown, here, since the ground is permanently frozen. Therefore, reindeer and horse meat is commonly consumed, there.

Ever had your smartphone hiccup in cold weather.

Find out if they can be used in Siberia.

Any challenges for electronics and photography in these cold conditions?

"Yes. iPhones and Android-based smartphones are useless for outdoor use.

If (they're kept) outdoors for five minutes, they become pieces of ice. Nevertheless, they are very popular over here and their owners keep their gadgets in the inner pockets."

(Jonathan adds) So much for a quick game of "Words With Friends" or "Angry Birds" on your way to work, eh?

How does the mood of the locals change with the seasons?

Can you detect a mood change among the residents when winter sets in? How about when spring arrives?

"Autumn is the very sad period. The summer is over and the long winter is ahead, but when the winter arrives, it appears that Yakutians like the cold weather. Don't even know why.

In the winter, people complain mostly if the heating system got broken or doesn't work well.

(The) last (few) years, Yakutians - those, who could afford it - tend to travel (to) the south Asian countries to enjoy the warmth and the sea. Thailand is a very popular travel destination now. There are even direct flights arranged between Yakutsk and Bangkok. Some even move to live over there for the whole winter.

We, Yakutians, dislike the heat and the hot weather. In July, people do really complain about the heat."

(Jon adds) Average summer highs range from the mid-60s to the low 70s. Incredibly, the mercury has rocketed as high as 94 degrees F on July 28, 2010. That's at least a 184 degree F difference from the official record lowest to highest temperature!

Mr. Bochkarev does offer tours.

Read about his experiences on tour and the interesting things he's seen next.

Bolot Bochkarev has been leading tours through his part of northeast Siberia for several years now. There must be some interesting stories to tell...

How long have you been doing tours? How popular are they? Any funny stories?

"There are always people who would like to experience the cold. Oymyakon is the very popular destination. Frankly, I started to dislike this place, as it is becoming already a touristic place."

(Jon) Wow! The coldest town on Earth has become "touristy?" Somehow I can't picture Oymyakon resembling, say, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Wisconsin Dells, or Branson, Mo.

"I prefer to travel overland to the places where not so many international travellers visited. Verkhoyansk, Kolyma, Arctic, for instance. By the way, in my personal opinion, last years Verkhoyansk appears to be more colder than Oymyakon.

The funny stories happen, when travellers start doing the fun in the cold. Like swimming or taking off the clothes or checking which alcoholic beverages start freezing quickly or using frozen bananas instead of hammers, etc. You know, it's all about people's imaginations."

I suppose this is yet another example of humans adapting to the climate. Siberians like Mr. Bochkarev, muttle through the extreme cold, as residents of the Desert Southwest lumber through a hot summer. That said, the resilience of Oymyakon, Yakutsk, and Siberia is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Why not bag the annual ski vacation, or warm-weather winter getaway for....Siberia!

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