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Shivering boffins nail Earth's coldest spot

A nippy -93°C down Antarctica way

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US researchers have announced they've identified the coldest place on Earth recorded to date - a spot in Antarctica which in August 2010 hit a decidedly chilly -93.2°C

Having trawled 32 years worth of data from various satellites, a team led by Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center presented its findings to the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco yesterday.

NASA explains: "They found temperatures plummeted to record lows dozens of times in clusters of pockets near a high ridge between Dome Argus and Dome Fuji, two summits on the ice sheet known as the East Antarctic Plateau."

Map of satellite images of coldest spot observations. Pic: NASA

The previous record of -89.2°C was recorded at Russia's Vostok Research Station in July 1983. With the benefit of instruments aboard NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites, backed by those on several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flying eyes in the sky, Scambos picked out even lower temperatures along a 1,000km stretch of the ridge.

"With the higher resolution of the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) aboard Landsat 8, the research team pinpointed the record-setting pockets," NASA says.

By comparing the readings with topographic maps, the researchers were able to offer an explanation for the brass monkeys conditions. NASA elaborates: "Already cold temperatures fall rapidly when the sky clears. If clear skies persist for a few days, the ground chills as it radiates its remaining heat into space.

"This creates a layer of super-chilled air above the surface of the snow and ice. This layer of air is denser than the relatively warmer air above it, which causes it to slide down the shallow slope of domes on the Antarctic plateau. As it flows into the pockets, it can be trapped, and the cooling continues."

Scambos concluded: "By causing the air to be stationary for extended periods, while continuing to radiate more heat away into space, you get the absolute lowest temperatures we're able to find. We suspected that we would be looking for one magical site that got extremely cold, but what we found was a large strip of Antarctica at high altitude that regularly reached these record low temperatures."

Evidently, the Antarctic winter might prove testing even for the residents of the northeastern Siberian towns of Oimekon and Verkhoyansk, both of which have enjoyed a balmy -67.8°C in "the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth", as NASA puts it. ®

Bootnote

By contrast, it hit a positively tropical -8°C here last night at the Special Project Bureau's mountaintop HQ. The next time my daughter moans about venturing outside to feed the mutts, I'm going to deploy the "Just get on with it and consider yourself lucky we don't live in Verkhoyansk" line.

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