The coldest place on Earth is even colder than 1st reported

Some Canadians may lament the cold temperatures winter brings us, but it's nothing compared to record-setting Antarctica.

With dry air and long nights, 'the Earth begins to act like it's a different planet'

Instruments that alert scientists to unusually warm conditions at a field camp in west Antarctica in December 2015 stand under a 'sun dog,' caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere. (Colin Jenkinson/Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

Some Canadians may lament the cold temperatures winter brings us, but they're nothing compared to record-setting Antarctica.

In 2013, scientists announced they'd found the coldest place on Earth, in the East Antarctic Plateau, where the mercury dipped to a face-numbing –93 C. Now, after re-examining the data, they've concluded it was even colder: –98 C. 

Scientists use ground-based and satellite sensors to calculate these temperatures. But, due to the size and remoteness of the Antarctic, there aren't sensors in many locations. So, the authors of the study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters on Monday, re-examined satellite data from the Southern Hemisphere winters of 2004 to 2016.

The data was in line with what they'd observed in 2013: regular temperatures of near –90 C at the surface, with the lowest recorded at –93 C.

Antarctica, seen from NASA's Aqua satellite, one of the satellites used to measure surface temperatures. (Aqua-MODIS)

However, the scientists then used instruments on NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites that had been calibrated to account for more recent ground-based station measurements and then reanalyzed the data. 

What they found was that the coldest temperature was, in fact, –98 C. 

It's not that the scientists got it wrong or that the temperature changed. 

Instruments on the two Earth-observing satellites are calibrated using ground-based data. With newer measurements, the scientists recalibrated the data, which provided a more accurate temperature.

Perfect ingredients for cold

There are a couple of reasons why the surface of Antarctica is able to get so cold. For one, the continent is extremely dry. Secondly, night — when temperatures drop — lasts for months.

The new data found the coldest spots were in small dips, because that super-cold air drops into the hollow areas and becomes trapped. Then the snowy surface and air directly above cool even more.

Lead researcher Ted Scambos, with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said the new data doesn't really change any science, but it does help scientists better understand the remote region.

"It really is a place where the Earth begins to act like it's a different planet," Scambos said. "It's very extreme for Earth."

"It's a look at what the extremes of Earth are really like."


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.