The coldest town on earth. Those words are easily dismissed until one actually considers their meaning: This frigid place holds lowest recorded temperature for any permanently inhabited location in the world. People actually choose make their homes and eke out a living in this frozen place.
The Siberian town of Oymyakon lies just a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. The town’s location in the Siberian subarctic is remote to the extreme. Since the weather is mostly too cold for planes to fly, the only way to get there is two days driving by car in any direction. The nearest urban centre is the city of Yakutsk at 576 miles away – Yakutsk itself holds the title of the coldest city on earth.
Oymyakon’s average January temperature stands at -50C. The town is known as the ‘Pole of Cold’ – the coldest ever temperature recorded in Oymyakon was in February in 1933, at minus 71.2 °C (−96 °F). This is not only the lowest recorded temperature for any permanently inhabited settlement on Earth, but also the lowest temperature recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. This means that this little town is colder than the North Pole. Only Antarctica has recorded lower temperatures on earth, with −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F), recorded at the Vostok ice Station.
Oymyakon’s location means that it lies in complete darkness for up to 21 hours a day during the winter, and only 3 hours in the summer. The town is built on permafrost due to the extreme subarctic climate. As such, the approximately 500 resident are resilient and hardy people. The permanently frozen ground means that crops cannot grow here, thus their diet consists of little other than reindeer and horse meat, and the occasional meal of fish. In a cruelly ironic twist, the same forces that prevents the growth of crops for the sustenance of the living also prevent the digging of graves for the dead. In Oymyakon, it takes several days to dig a grave. In permafrost this established, the process is a strenuous task that lasts almost a week. It involves lighting a bonfire, waiting until the top few inches of earth to thaw, digging that out, and repeating the process again and again until the hole is large enough to inter a coffin.
Besides the obvious issues with extreme remoteness and inaccessibility, the deathly cold itself forces the town’s residents to adapt to their extreme environment in ways that mean most of the day’s energy is devoted to the two principle survival pillars: Keeping warm and feeding oneself. Death is never far away here, the environment is so hostile as to remind the resident constantly of both their vulnerability and how the human race began – meeting the human bodies simple needs here is a full time job. The town’s extreme conditions evokes questions as to not only why, but also how the residents of this remotest of remote locations survive. The few modern accessories that this subarctic environment allows come with a price. Cars must be kept in heated garages. If left outside they must be left running at all times, otherwise the vehicle will never restart – the batteries will die due to the pervasive freeze, fuel lines will crack and even axle grease, transmission fluid and fuel in the tanks will freeze solid.
Despite the extreme cold, most households use outhouses rather than indoor toilets, as indoor plumbing will freeze up and pipes will burst. Electronics are all but useless in Oymyakon as the hard frost literally freezes internals solid. Pencils are used because the ink inside pens will solidify. Locals use fur wrapping and clothing to keep warm as most modern clothing and fibres is simply is not enough to protect the human body at these temperatures. If a person were to venture outside with no clothes, it would take just one minute to freeze to death.
So, the only remaining question to be answered is: Why do the residents of this town remain, when the environment is so brutal, so hostile? Oymyakon actually means ‘non-freezing water’ owing to a nearby thermal spring. The Town’s began as a stopover for nomadic reindeer herders, who would water their flocks from the thermal spring.
In the middle of last century, Russia’s Soviet government distrusted its nomadic constituents, believing them to be wild, difficult to control, and culturally backward. Therefore the Soviets undertook programmes to permanently settle the nomadic peoples, believing that in settling them, they would also tame them. Oymyakon is one result of the Soviet settlement schemes. The Soviets built many of the town’s buildings. They threw up basic infrastructure, Cyrillic signs and a statue of Lenin, and named this reindeer herder’s outpost as a new Russian frontier town. The Soviets followed the old wisdom of ‘build it and they will come’. The nomadic people of the Siberian tundra came, and settled in the new township. As with many of the world’s most inaccessible places, the people there remain, simply because this is their home. They are culturally and historically tied to this area, and although their method of survival and their circumstances may have changed, they have nowhere else they would rather be.
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– Oymyakon lies at a 63.4608° N, 142.7858° E latitude near the Arctic Circle
– The town for the most part only accessible via road, a two-day drive from anywhere. Any attempts to reach it should be undertaken in a properly equipped 4×4 with rations enough for several days, and a cold-weather survival kit.
– Activities for the prospective tourist in Oymyakon include reindeer hunts, ice fishing and hot springs