Life in the Freezer

I’ve recently developed a fascination with human life in extreme conditions.

For a tropical animal, bred and adapted to the warm and fertile conditions found near equatorial Africa, we human beings do get about. Unlike almost all other species (bar a few other tool-users) we are not limited to the tool-kit that nature wrote into our DNA. Our two most singular characteristics are our ability to create new tools, and also our remarkable ability to communicate the relevant ideas to each other. The ability to organise and the ability to innovate has allowed us to migrate far outside of our native habitat. In fact, it’s to the point that most of us don’t even realise that we’re an introduced species in most locations.

And we’re very, very good at introducing ourselves to all sorts of bizarre locations.

Consider, for instance, Oymyakon. This is a small town in the Sakha Republic in Russia. It actually is a functioning town – it’s not a military base or a scientific station, it’s a real, self-supporting place with people and an economy. It’s also possibly the most climatically-extreme settlement on Earth.

The record summer temperature in Oymyakon is 34.6 Celsius. The minimum recorded low is -65.4. Yes, minus sixty-five. Add that up and you have a potential range of a staggering 100 degrees Celsius! Essentially, Oymakyon has an extreme continental climate, made worse by a combination of altitude and geography. (Some local mountains trap cold air in its vicinity.) Although there is a summer, with reliable above-freezing temperatures, the winters are cold enough that the annual average is -16 Celsius.

By contrast, a naked human being can ‘freeze’ to death in any air temperature colder than about 30 Celsius (IIRC). (This is what we mean by ‘tropical animal’. You may ask, how then can we live anywhere else? The answer is that we get around this limit by cheating – clothing! Your clothing captures a layer of warm air around your body.)

And yet, human beings manage to live in Oymyakon, and apparently even manage to be reasonably happy there.

(The BBC has an interesting gallery of photos from Oymakyon. It’s worth a look.)

Another, similar example has to be the island of Svalbard. Longyearbyen is the capital of the island. With a population of nearly 3,000 and a lattitude of 78 degrees North, Longyearbyen is one of the largest settlements inside the Arctic Circle. Like Oymakyon, it’s an actual, self-supporting town with a valid economy. And it’s climate is such that it’s only reliably above freezing between June through August. And even then the temperature only rarely exceeds 10 Celsius.

Oddly enough, Longyearbyen is arguably less extreme than Oymakyon. Svalbard benefits from the Gulf Stream, and its climate is moderated by the surrounding sea. Although very cold, it’s average temperatures are still consistently around 20 degrees or so warmer than other, similar-lattitude regions in the Arctic. However, Longyearbyen does have another oddity – due to its lattitude, it has four months of the year when the Sun doesn’t rise from the town.* (The converse, obviously, also applies – there’s a period in the summer when the Sun doesn’t set.)

The coldest place where human beings have lived is further afield. This is found in Antarctica. Antarctica is the one continent that we’ve never really managed to permanently-settle – a combination of low precipitation**, extremely low temperatures and no arable land have made it that little bit too harsh. However, limited exploration has occured.

Unlike either Oymakyon or Longyearbyen, the Russian Vostok research station is not a self-supporting community. It is more in the manner of a sort of terrestrial space station. With the exception of the air its crews breathe, all its supplies have to be brought in from outside. And no wonder – the daily median temperature is a staggeringly-cold -55 Celsius. The record high ever recorded at Vostok was a comparatively-balmy -12 C.

Yes, you did read that right. -12 was the record high.

But there’s worse. The record low is an unbelievable -89.2 degrees Celsius. (This happened on the 21st of July, 1983.) To put this in perspective, carbon dioxide sublimates – goes from gas to solid – at about -90 degrees. So on that day, Vostok was less than one degree off from the temperature at which one of the constituents of our atmosphere would freeze out.

Vostok has such an appallingly cold climate for two reasons. The first is its southerly lattitude, although that’s not the entire story. (Oddly enough, the actual geographical South Pole is actually a bit warmer, on average.) The second reason is altitude – Vostok is nearly 3,500 metres above sea-level. The combination of the two is what produces the bitter, bitter winters.

What all of these regions have in common is that they demonstrate the remarkable adaptability of the human organism. Tool use is such a handy thing! These regions also have wider implications, for instance for space colonisation. If we do indeed ever attempt to settle any other planet (and I think that’s an ‘if’ at the moment), then studies of environments like these will be critical to the planning. (Of course, it has to be realised that even the most extreme environment on Earth still supplies air pressure and oxygen!)
*This effect is due to the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis with respect to the plane of its orbit, the same phenomenon that causes the seasons in the first place.
**Antarctica is actually rather dry. The reason why it’s snow-covered is because the small amount that does fall, never really melts, so it stays there basically forever. Technically, Antarctica can be classified as a cold desert, due to the lack of precipitation.


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