Stories

Go deeper: Finding the coldest temperature on Earth

1911: Norwegian explorer Captain Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, inspecting ice fields near a glacier in the Atlantic Ocean.
Norwegian explorer Captain Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, inspecting ice fields in 1911. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

In 2013, scientists announced that they had observed the coldest temperature on Earth near the South Pole at -135°F, but a new study re-analyzing that data found the temperature was really -144°F.

The big picture: Researchers scanning dips and hollows in the Antarctic ice sheet found that, over the last 14 years, there were many places where temperatures dropped to exactly -144°F but never colder, prompting them to postulate that this is the lowest possible temperature on Earth's surface.

  • In a press release, Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said that -144°F seems to be the limit for temperature lows. That number could drop slightly lower if dry, clear conditions persisted for weeks on end, but that's extremely unlikely.
  • Extreme low temperatures require very clear and dry air to persist for several days, which makes it denser than warm air, so the pockets of extreme cold get trapped in hollows of the ice sheet. The coldest weather was found six to nine feet deep in these hollows.
  • To find this limit for cold temperatures, scientists have moved past using stationary weather stations to analyzing satellite data so they may survey larger areas with greater specificity.

Why it matters: Scambos told Axios that establishing weather extremes can help scientists more closely measure global environmental conditions as they change. "Increasing CO2 or water vapor would reduce the chance that such [low] temperatures will occur in the future — and they may have been a bit more frequent in the past."

  • Scambos noted that this more specific satellite method could eventually be trumped by higher spatial resolution that could uncover even colder temperatures, but that ultimate difference would be slight.

Go deeper: Read the full study here.