The hardy souls of the British North Greenland Expedition in the 1950s recorded a temperature of -66.1C at their base in northern Greenland, a home-ruled Danish territory that is technically a part of North America.
The frozen island has a thriving population of more than 56,000 people, but they are mostly clustered into communities along the southern coasts, where summer temperatures can be quite comfortable.
Much of the north and interior is uninhabited, and buried beneath thick ice. As such, we know very little about it – to the point where the ice sheet covers a massive canyon 750 km and more than 800 m deep in some places, and we didn’t even know about until just last year.
And the thing about that frigid temperature is, like others on this list, it’s the coldest OBSERVED in Greenland. It’s almost certain that there are colder places on the island, although scientists can be forgiven for not falling over themselves to slap on a parka and go hunting for them.
Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon, Russia
We’re sure the inhabitants of these two small Russian Siberian communities must be thrilled at being forced to share a spot on this list.
As it happens, when Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon (see the beautiful landscape shot below) reached record lows of -67.7C (the former in 1892, the latter in 1933), they entered the history books for multiple reasons.
Together, they are simultaneously the coldest places in Russia, Asia and the northern Hemisphere.
As well, the small towns are permanent settlements, and the coldest such in the world.
They also dual-wield the scepter of being the northern Pole of Cold (Oymyakon even built one as a monument, down below).
We can’t help but imagine the two towns locked in an enduring rivalry over who’s REALLY the coldest, with many a dagger-glare exchanged between citizens of either community passing each other on the backroads of the Siberian wastes.
Vostok Station, Antarctica
As we plunge deeper into the historic deep freeze, of course we find ourselves in Antarctica.
On July 21, 1983, Soviet researchers at Vostok Station in the continent's interior, well away from the climate effects of the sea, checked their instruments and found a reading of -89.2C, almost one degree below the previous record set in 1960.
The researchers had plenty of time to see it coming. According to this Russian language weather bulletin, the temperature started dropping about 2.5C per day from -75C down to the new record, amid clear skies and light winds.
Adding insult to injury, the temperature rose sharply to around -66.7C (break out the swim trunks, comrades!), but the comparative warm-up was accompanied by a blizzard.
We wonder what they’d have thought had they known the worst was yet to come…
It’s like the weather gods roused themselves to look at Vostok Station’s paltry record of -89.2C long enough to scoff and say “know what? We can do better.”
The result? A new record of -94.7C recorded in eastern Antarctica in August of 2010, but only reported last month. That’s more than five degrees colder than Vostok Station was.
As terribly cold as that is, you won’t find it in the Guinness Book of World Records – Apparently it doesn’t count, since it was measured using satellite data, not a regular thermometer (which we think is a dubious bar to entry ourselves).
So how does that kind of temperature affect the human body?
Well, the scientist who announced the findings says researchers at the South Pole occasionally amuse themselves by dashing naked through temperatures of -73C, and he reckons people can survive for about three minutes in those conditions (how he knows the last bit is an interesting question).
Worth noting as well: When scientists are doing actual outdoor research in those conditions (as in, not streaking), they wear a breather than draws air into their suits through a sleeve, to be warmed by body heat before it reaches the lungs.
Prolonged exposure to the cold air that gripped much of Canada last week was absolutely dangerous – but hey, it could have been worse.