“Shallow depressions in a high-elevation part of the East Antarctic Plateau have the capacity to become the coldest places on the face of the Earth during their polar winter. Eli Duke/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
We all know the type. Certain people treat every conversation about bad or extreme weather like it’s some kind of contest. Maybe their hometown is snowier than yours. Maybe they’ve lived through more blizzards. In any case, these charming folks can’t resist a little meteorological one-upmanship.
This got us thinking about superlatives. How cold can the surface of our planet physically get? And what’s the coldest place on Earth? To find answers to these questions, we got in touch with two scientists who’ve studied that very topic.
July 21, 1983 was a day for the record books. One of the most remote facilities in all of Antarctica is a place called Vostok Station. Run by the Russian government — and previously, the USSR — it’s located on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, just 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away from the geographic South Pole.
On that historic date in 1983, researchers working at the station measured the lowest near-surface air temperature that’s ever been recorded: -128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (or -89.2 degrees Celsius).
Note the qualifier. We specifically said "near-surface air temperature." That term is about to become very important to our discussion.
Ted Scambos is a polar geophysicist based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In an email exchange, he told us near-surface air temperature is "the temperature that a thermometer reads at 4.9 to 9.8 feet [1.5 to 3 meters] above the surface [of the Earth]."
"’The reference height for formal measurements is 6 feet 6 inches or so (2 meters) above the surface," Scambos adds.
“This map of Antarctica shows the massive East Antarctic Plateau, which includes Dome Argus and Lake Vostok, two of the coldest places on record in the world.Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.5)
When you go higher or lower, the measured temperature at your location may change.
Surface temperatures are a different beast altogether. Speaking via email, Temple University geophysicist and polar scientist Atsuhiro Muto defined these as "temperatures of the physical surface of Earth, whether it be soil, water or ice."
With that in mind, let’s return to Antarctica.
A New Perspective
Scambos was the lead author of a 2018 study which reported on "ultralow surface temperatures" in East Antarctica. Muto was one of its co-authors.
Published in the journal "Geophysical Research Letters," the paper describes how Scambos, Muto and their colleagues used satellite sensors to investigate weather patterns on the East Antarctic Plateau.
Located at the center of the continent, the East Antarctic Plateau is where the aforementioned geographic South Pole resides.
But that’s not the only attraction. Dome Argus, the highest point of elevation in Eastern Antarctica, is also situated on the plateau. This icy spot looms 13,428 feet (4,093 meters) above sea level.
For decades, artificial satellites — including some built and maintained by NASA — have overseen the conditions on the East Antarctic Plateau.
Scambos, Muto and their colleagues went back and reviewed the relevant data gathered by these devices during the winters of 2004 through 2016.
In that time, the satellites observed surface temperatures of around -138 degreesFahrenheit (-98 degrees Celsius) at roughly 100 shallow depressions on the plateau — all scattered across a "broad region" that includes Dome Argus but sits at a higher elevation than Vostok Station.
These are the lowest surface temperatures ever recorded anywhere on Earth.
Muto stresses that because the data was collected by Earth-observing satellites, "no human being experienced these low temperatures."
"To my knowledge, the lowest temperature recorded by a physical thermometer and experienced by humans is still -89.2 degrees Celsius at Vostok Station," he says.
Each year, the geographic South Pole and nearby areas undergo a "polar night." That’s an extended period in which the sun never climbs above the horizon. The record-setting plateau temperatures Scambos and company wrote about in 2018 were observed during this dark stretch of the calendar — usually in the months of July and August.
"The East Antarctic Plateau is so cold because of high altitude and the snow on the surface reflects most of the solar energy back, about 90 percent or more, to the atmosphere," says Muto. "Plus, you have the polar nights during the winter when there is no solar energy at all. Also, because of the great distance from the coast, you rarely get warmer coastal air masses penetrating inland to bring the heat."
Obviously, this is not an environment for the faint-hearted.
"It is a gigantic, white, flat expanse of bitter cold snow. The wind is ceaseless, the sky is a deeper blue than any place you’ve seen before. It is an isolated, eternal landscape," explains Scambos.
Yet even here, extreme surface temperatures in the ballpark of -138 degrees Fahrenheit (-98 degrees Celsius) will only occur under just the right circumstances. Prolonged darkness alone isn’t enough.
To bring the metaphorical thermostat all the way down to that low, low point, Scambos says there must also be "still air, zero clouds, incredibly dry atmosphere and you need to be sitting in a swale in the ice surface, a subtle depression of 6.5 to 9.8 feet [2 to 3 meters] depth and a couple miles across." (Note that one mile is equal to 1.6 kilometers.)
Dips and valleys in the Antarctic ice sheet trap air that’s dense, dry and cold, even by South Pole standards. Given enough time, the trapped air cools down surface-level snow, along with some of the warmer air above it.
So there you have it. Shallow depressions in a high-elevation part of the East Antarctic Plateau have the capacity to become the coldest places on the face of the Earth during their polar winter. The bragging rights have been claimed. Inform your Midwestern relatives.
Now That’s Interesting
Fossils left behind by prehistoric marine reptiles and even a few dinosaurs have been discovered in Antarctica.