Scientists Find Coldest Place On Earth: What It Be Like To Spend Time On The East Antarctic Plateau?

By Josh Lieberman on December 10, 2013 6:47 PM EST

Coldest Place On Earth
Scientists have recorded the coldest temperature on earth, on the East Antarctic Plateau. Above, penguins in Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, in East Antarctica. (Photo: Reuters)

When it's late February and you're complaining about the winter dragging endlessly on, take comfort in the fact that you're not on the East Antarctic Plateau, where scientists have measured the coldest temperature on earth. At negative 135.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the August 10, 2010, temperature was "tens of degrees colder than anything ever seen in Alaska, Siberia or Greenland," said Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., the group that made the discovery. 

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The coldest place in the world wasn't just discovered by some East Antarctica dude looking at his window thermometer. The reading came from an analysis of 32 years of data collected by a variety of satellites, including NASA's Landsat 8, which is run in conjunction with the US Geological Survey. The satellites measure temperatures by picking up thermal radiation emitted from earth's surface. In this case, the satellite data came from a roughly 620-mile-long stretch of the East Antarctic ice divide.   

"We had a suspicion this Antarctic ridge was likely to be extremely cold, and colder than Vostok because it's higher up the hill," Scambos said, referring to the previous record of negative 128.6 degrees measured in Vostok, Antartica, in 1983. "With the launch of Landsat 8, we finally had a sensor capable of really investigating this area in more detail."

But even with the advanced capabilities of Landsat 8, the coldest temperature reading still won't cut it with either the Guinness Book of World Records or the World Meteorological Organization, which only accept ground-level readings. That means that the 1983 Vostok reading is still the current record, if you're going by either of the aforementioned organizations.  

So what would it be like to be plunged into such cold temperatures as those of the East Antarctic Plateau? Well for one thing, you wouldn't want to breath too much. Scambos said that at those temperatures, "I am told that every breath is painful and you have to be extremely careful not to freeze part of your throat or lungs when inhaling." Scambos has been in negative 40-degree weather in Antarctica, where "moisture from your eyes freezes out on your eyelashes and makes it hard to see." Now imagine it being 100 degrees colder than that.   

In such painfully cold weather, maybe you'd want to drink away you misery. At home, the vodka in your freezer may not freeze, but on the East Antarctic Plateau it certainly will. An 80-proof vodka, containing 40 percent ethanol, freezes at just negative 16.51 degrees Fahrenheit, so that vodka won't be much of a solace to you. It would've frozen long before you got to negative 135.8 degrees.

If you've got a car with you in this (admittedly weird) scenario, driving away would be difficult at the very least. Assuming there were actually roads on the East Antarctic Plateau, it would be perhaps impossible for a car to function. Here's what happens at just negative 78 degrees, according to one resident of Tok, Alaska: "[A]s you drive, you can feel your steering wheel freeze up. And then you can feel your brakes freeze up. Sometimes, you can even get the condensation inside the window turning into hard ice." And with the temperature reaching some 60 degrees colder than that on the East Antarctic Plateau, it is likely that gasoline would turn into a useless sludge anyway.

The bottom line? Don't go to the coldest place on earth.

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