The electronic thermometer froze in the world’s coldest town this week after temperatures dipped to -62 C.
Oymyakon (which translates to “the water that doesn’t freeze”) is a village in Northern Russia with around 500 permanent residents. This week, the town’s electronic thermometer, which had been installed last year as a tourist attraction, died after registering -62 C. The Siberian Times reported that the thermometer broke, “because it was too cold.”
It also reported that there was some dispute as to exactly how cold it got; while the official weather station registered -59 C, some locals said that their readings were as low as -67. This extreme cold snap comes in the middle of what is on track to be Russia’s darkest winter on record, with Moscow experiencing only 6 minutes of sunshine during the month of December.
Oymyakon is officially the coldest permanent settlement anywhere on Earth. While January’s average temperature is a comparatively-balmy -50 C, a recording taken in 1933 put the temperature at -67.7 C. Although the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth was almost 20 degrees lower (−89.2 °C, at a Soviet station in Antarctica), Oymyakon’s 1933 reading is still the chilliest temperature recorded in a place where people actually live year-round.
The extreme cold can make daily life difficult for the town’s permanent residents. Residents tell stories of pens freezing, planes unable to land, and batteries spontaneously draining. Since people leave their cars running all day during the winter out of fear that they won’t restart, gas stations in the region are open 24 hours a day.
The frozen ground presents its own set of problems. In the winter, it’s so difficult to dig graves that the locals will light a fire on the site they want to dig the grave on, let the earth thaw, and then dig down a few inches. They have to repeat the procedure for several days in order for the grave to get deep enough to bury someone. And in summer, when the warmer temperatures start to thaw the upper layers of the permafrost, buildings can shift or tilt. Most homes in Oymyakon are built with their foundations on concrete and steel “stilts” drilled down into the permafrost so that they don’t risk structural damage.
In 2012, New Zealand adventure photographer Amos Chapple made the two-day trek from Yakutsk. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, he described a cold so bitter that it “grips you almost physically.” When he made the mistake of walking outside in thin pants, he felt like his legs “were in a tightening vice.” He was initially confused as to why he felt as though “fine needles were occasionally pricking my lips,” but eventually realized that the “needles” were just little strings of saliva that froze while his mouth was open.
But, for the residents of the world’s coldest town, even the thermometer-busting cold weather is no incentive to leave for sunnier climes. “Sure, we have to wrap up warm,” local Martina Vadreyev said, in an interview with the BBC. “In other parts of Russia you can throw on a coat to go outdoors, here it takes ages to dress. But we are used to it. This is our home.”