Coldest point on Earth is more like an alien planet than our own

29 Jun 2018

Image: Volodymyr Goinyk/Shutterstock

Using the power of satellites, scientists have located the coldest point on the planet, more like somewhere from another planet than our own.

Antarctica isn’t referred to as the ‘frozen continent’ for nothing, as its first explorers came to understand at the turn of the last century.

But just how cold it could go could not have been understood until the satellite age and now, new research has identified where the coldest point on the planet actually is, according to National Geographic.

The discovery – published in Geophysical Research Letters – was made by a team from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and showed that the point in east Antarctica is a staggering -98 degrees Celsius.

This smashes the previous record from the Russian Vostok Station close to the South Pole, which came in at -89 degrees Celsius.

To get a sense of what it would be like to be in those temperatures, it would be impossible for you to take more than a few breaths as your lungs would haemorrhage, which is why the Russian scientists wear masks designed to warm the air around their mouths.

Describing the point, the study’s leader, Ted Scambos, said: “It’s a place where Earth is so close to its limit, it’s almost like another planet.”

Effects of climate change

The team went through several years of satellite data in east Antarctica to find where temperatures dipped low. While Russian scientists might be on the ground, there are currently no ground-based temperature scales across this part of the continent.

Once the data was analysed, around 100 extremely cold pockets were discovered across the landmass, the coldest being in hollow depressions found in the ice. These act as cold sinks, drawing the freezing temperatures into them.

It was at the top of those hollows where the previous record low temperature was found. If a human were to stand in one of these shallow depressions, their head would be a fraction warmer, somewhere around -94 degrees Celsius.

There are some benefits for these ultra-cold conditions, however, as the incredibly clear conditions created in these cold spots make them ideal to put telescopes in.

Looking to the future, it would appear that these extreme points are expected to get warmer as climate change progresses, with expectations that the continent’s average temperature would increase by about 3-4 degrees Celsius.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic