Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Poles of Cold

The snow keeps falling here in Portland. We're getting into that time of winter now where the cold, dark days start to take their toll. Families head down to Florida in droves in February and March for a desperate seasonal respite.

As a Texan, I sometimes wonder if people were meant to live in an environment where the outdoors is in many ways inaccessible for much of the year. Wouldn't it be simpler not to have to worry about freezing to death? And of course, on a global scale, Maine is actually rather temperate. What must it be like to live somewhere really cold?

Enter the Poles of Cold. These are the locations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres where the coldest known temperatures have been recorded. Not surprisingly, the Southern point is in Antarctica, where a temperature of -129.8 degrees Fahrenheit was measured. But no one actually lives in Antarctica as the ordinary person lives.

In the Northern hemisphere, though, the Pole of Cold lies in northeastern Siberia, and two villages there claim to be the coldest inhabited in the world. Both Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon have registered temperatures near -90 Fahrenheit.

I have trouble imagining what it must be like to call these places home. Oymyakon, for example, is located in a river valley between two mountain ranges, so the cold gathers and remains there for most of the year. And at Verkhoyansk's latitude (pretty much in line with the Arctic Circle), the sun never rises on the winter solstice.

On top of the brutal conditions, there's the chilling history of the region as well. During the first decades of Soviet control, it was rife with gulags where prisoners, many convicted, or merely accused, of minor or political crimes, were forced to work the mines and lay roads and rail lines to propel the country's industrialization. It goes without saying that these camps had an appalling mortality rate. And, when the gulag system was dissolved in the 1950s, where did they go? Were they able to return to their former lives in the relative warmth of southern and western Russia? Or did they stay and put down roots through the permafrost at the Pole of Cold?

Surely there are those who enjoy the frigid life. Supposedly, when the temperature drops below -50F, atmospheric ice crystals produce a crinkling sound known as the "whispering of the stars." Fogged breath hangs as static mist in the air, and the sky's color becomes more vivid.

For me, though, the Maine winter is enough. From my computer spot I can look out the window onto a snowy patch of city and be thankful that the radiators are hissing and popping again inside. And after writing this post, the day doesn't even seem so cold.

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