Scientists Detect Coldest Temperature Ever Recorded On Earth's Surface

In 2013, scientists announced that they had detected the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth’s surface. This temperature—a staggering minus 93 degrees Celsius (minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit)—was observed in several spots on the East Antarctic Plateau, a high snowy plain that encompasses the South Pole.

Now, after re-examining weather data for this region, the same researchers have found that temperatures at several sites had actually dipped lower than previously thought, to a record-setting minus 98 degrees Celsius (minus 144 degrees Fahrenheit) on several occasions between 2004 and 2016.

The results, which are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, could transform scientists’ understanding of how low temperatures can go on the Earth’s surface.

For the study, a team led by Ted Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder re-analyzed temperature data for the East Antarctic Plateau, which was gathered during the Southern Hemisphere winter between 2004 and 2016.

This was the same dataset that the researchers examined in 2013, producing the previous record low reading. However, since then, it had been updated to take into account more-up-to-date weather station measurements, giving the team a better idea of what the real temperature at the surface was.

The updated information indicated that the record low was about 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) colder than the temperature they had reported in 2013. The coldest of these temperature readings were taken during the polar night in tiny hollows, two to three meters deep, that cover the Antarctic ice sheet. These dips in the ice can trap super cold and dry air, according to the researchers.

When the team made their initial findings in 2013, they suggested that for temperatures to dip so low, persistent clear skies were required as well as light winds. The new results, however, indicate that the air must also be extremely dry, because water vapor traps heat in the air.

Antarctica-image-1 In 2013, scientists announced they'd found the coldest spot on Earth– measured in several spots on the East Antarctic Plateau. But new measurements have found the area is even colder than originally thought. Ted Scambos/University of Colorado Boulder

For the mercury to reach minus 98 then, these conditions all need to persist for several days. To go any lower, they would have to persist for several weeks, which is extremely unlikely, according to the scientists.

This is because once the temperature drops below a certain point, the air cools so slowly that it can’t get significantly colder before an inevitable change in weather conditions. In light of this, minus 98 Celsius is probably about as cold as the Earth’s surface will ever get, Scambos suggests.

“There's a limit to how long the conditions persist to allow it to cool to these ultra-low temperatures, and a limit to how much heat you can actually get through the atmosphere, because water vapor has to be almost nonexistent in order to emit heat from the surface at these temperatures,” Scambos said in a statement.

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