But the sub-zero temperatures recorded in the United States and Canada over the past few days are nothing the planet hasn’t seen before. In fact, compared to the coldest Earth has gotten in the past century, the current weather is — entirely unscientific analogy alert — more of a brisk November day than a January face-freezer.
Here’s the iciest our world has ever been, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s records. -128.5ºF sort of puts -15ºF into perspective, doesn’t it?
1. Vostok, Antarctica: -128.5ºF (-89.2ºC)
Recorded on July 21, 1983, this remains the lowest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth — and has earned the Russian research station where it was recorded the frankly awesome title of “World Pole of Cold.” Scientists using remote sensors claim that nearby parts of East Antarctica are actually even colder (-137ºF, to be precise), though the World Meteorological Organization says only measurements taken by equipment on the ground count as official.
Either way, it’s freaking cold. Around 25 people are usually based at Vostok in the summer months — if a period in which the average temperature is -22ºF can still be classed as “summer” — and 13 in winter, when the mercury typically hovers around the -85ºF mark. They have to contend not only with extreme cold, but air with minimal moisture or oxygen content, high winds, whiteouts and around four months of continual polar night. Well-wrapped humans are thought to be the only living beings capable of surviving the extreme conditions, and then only with a certain amount of vomiting, headaches, high blood pressure and, according to one physiologist’s observation, finding themselves “afraid to sleep at night for fear that they would stop breathing.”
And that’s when the heating’s working: in 1982, the year before its record-breaking temperature was recorded, the Vostok station’s power plant was wiped out by fire, leaving its inhabitants without heat for all eight months of polar winter that followed. They kept from freezing by burning candles improvised out of asbestos fiber and diesel fuel.
2. Oymyakon, Russia: -90ºF (-67.7ºC)
The small town of Oymyakon in northeast Russia has the honor of being the coldest place in the northern hemisphere, and the coldest permanently inhabited place in the entire world. Its lowest temperature was measured on Feb. 6, 1933. (The same temperature was also recorded in the nearby town of Verkhoyansk, more than a century earlier, but scientists consider the later measurement more accurate.)
According to more recent data, Oymyakon’s daily mean temperature for January is -51.5ºF; but in July, the thermometer's been known to measure up to 94.3ºF. That gives the town one of the most schizophrenic climates in the world. Fewer than 500 people live there, for reasons that should be obvious.
3. Northice, Greenland: -87ºF (-66.1ºC)
Officially the coldest place in the western hemisphere. The temperature was measured on Jan. 9, 1954, at the research station set up by scientists carrying out the British North Greenland Expedition.
Greenland is, as expedition leader C. J. W. Simpson put it, “a gigantic basin of ice.” In his account of the two years he and his team spent there, he writes: “Nearly all the native inhabitants are settled on the west coast, where a warm sea current takes the chill off the climate. The north-east coast where we were based is much less accessible; it is guarded from the sea by a belt of pack ice which may be as much as 100 miles wide, and to force a way through the east Greenland pack is difficult and dangerous.” With the help of the Royal Air Force, which airdropped boats into the icy wastes, the team managed it; but they again left in summer 1954, soon after measuring the record temperature. Thankfully for the polar bears that are its main residents — one of which Simpson’s men killed and ate — the area has remained uninhabited by humans ever since.
4. Snag, Canada: -81.4ºF (-63ºC)
If you’ve never heard of the tiny settlement of Snag, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, you’re not alone. In 1947, when it became the coldest place in North America, only a couple of dozen people lived there, most of them stationed at a military airfield. It was there, in the middle of the harshest winter on record, that officers noticed strange things happening: sounds carried miles further than usual. You could hold a piece of ice in your hand, indoors, for more than five minutes before it would start turning to water. Breath would freeze in the air, making a hissing sound and leaving vapor trails up to 500 yards long. Early on Feb. 3, Officer Gordon M. Toole saw the alcohol in the thermometer fall below its minimum -80ºF marker and, since it was too cold for a pen to work, scratched a line into the instrument with a file.
That record has never yet been beaten. In comparison, the coldest temperature measured in Canada today was -47ºF, at Stony Rapids Airport in Saskatchewan — cold, yes, but not what’s-that-behind-me-oh-just-another-hissing-trail-of-my-own-instantaneously-frozen-exhalations cold.
5. Everywhere else
All the places we’ve described so far, well, you’d expect them to be freezing. But no continent is a stranger to a cold snap. Mainland Europe? Try -62.9ºF in Austria and -57.2ºF in Italy. Asia? China, India and Turkey have all seen temperatures below -50ºF. Argentina has got as cold as -38ºF, Australia once measured -9.4ºF and Morocco fell to -11ºF.