The Coldest Town - Life in Siberia's Pole of Cold
Alexander, Bryan, The World and I
It is midafternoon in late January in the small Siberian town of Verkhoyansk. Although the temperature is --70*F, the winter sun shines golden through the cloak of freezing fog that envelops the town. Figures dressed in bulky clothes walk purposefully along the wide main street, the hard-packed snow squeaking beneath their boots. At these extremely low temperatures, breath freezes instantly to hair, eyebrows, and beards. Most people venture out of their homes only to go to work or the shops; the rest of the time they stay indoors. Here the animal rights movement has yet to make its mark--practically everyone wears big fur hats and coats and thick, felt-soled reindeer-skin boots called unty, considered essential for keeping out Siberia's winter cold.
Verkhoyansk, situated on the bank of the Yana River in the Russian republic of Yakutia, has the distinction of being the coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere. If you work on the theory that the farther north you go from the equator the colder it gets, you would expect the North Pole to be the coldest place, but Verkhoyansk, which lies some 150 miles south, gets much colder. The town first made history on January 15, 1885, when the record-breaking temperature of --90.4*F was measured there, a record that still stands, though it has come close to being broken a few times. In 1996, for example, despite global warming, a temperature of --85*F was recorded. Though Verkhoyansk competes with another town in Yakutia, Oimyakon, for the dubious privilege of being the coldest town in the world, most climatologists agree that Verkhoyansk is the winner.
Coincidentally, the coldest place in the Southern Hemisphere (and the world) also happens to be in Russian territory. It is the top of a 12,000-foot-high ice dome near the Russian Antarctic station of Vostok, some six hundred miles north of the South Pole, where a temperature of --127*F was recorded, the lowest on earth.
The reason Verkhoyansk gets so much colder than the North Pole is that it lies in the middle of a very large landmass, which cools much more efficiently than does the Arctic Ocean. The Verkhoyansk region also experiences a temperature inversion, which makes low-lying areas considerably colder than the mountains. The air temperature at ground level can be almost ten degrees colder than the temperature at two meters. It also gets intensely hot in summer. In July 1998, a temperature of 104*F was recorded, giving Verkhoyansk a yearly temperature range of 194 degrees, the greatest in the world.
As a Russian four-wheel drive passes, its exhaust hangs almost motionlessly behind it in the cold air, dissipating extremely slowly because the cold air is so dense. It is amazing that cars actually work at all in this severe cold. They do, however, have to undergo some modification. Most vehicles have double-glazed windows. Engines are covered with a quilt to insulate them from the cold, and up to three additional heaters are required to keep the passengers comfortably warm inside. Even so, driving at this time of year in Yakutia is hazardous. Travel is often on rough, icy roads that cross frozen rivers and lakes, where breakdowns can have serious consequences. In March 1998 a Yakutsk family of four was stranded on a remote stretch of road. They had insufficient warm clothing with them; despite burning the vehicle's tires in an attempt to keep warm, they all froze to death within a few hours.
The culture of cold
A massive pair of concrete bull's horns marks the entrance to Verkhoyansk. (According to an old Yakut legend, bull's horns symbolize the cold of winter.) The town was founded in 1638 by a Cossack named Postnic Ivanov. Its isolation and severe climate made it a popular place for Russia's czars to banish their political opponents. A meteorological station was built there in 1883. One of these political exiles, Sergei Kovalic, measured the 1885 record-breaking temperature that led to the town's title, "Pole of Cold. …