Why is Oymyakon so cold? (info + photos)

September 20, 2009

Oymyakon or Ojmjakon in winter. Yakutia, Siberia/Russia. Photo by Bolot Bochkarev

I found the question “Why is it so cold in Oymyakon?” in the list of keywords that have brought some traffic to my weblog, and I recalled Nick Middleton, an Oxford geography lecturer and the creator of the four-series TV show “Going to Extremes.” The first part, btw, depicted his travel to Oymyakon, the world’s coldest inhabited place on Earth. While staying in the village of Oymyakon, he gave a detailed explanation of why the Oymyakon area in eastern Yakutia was able to keep the cold as low as -71.2 degrees Celsius (-96.16 degrees Fahrenheit).

The same explanation he gives in his book Going to Extremes: Mud, Sweat and Frozen Tears, in which he ventures to the hottest, driest, coldest, and wettest inhabited places on Earth. He wants to know not only how people manage to live in these places, but also why they settled there in the first place. And, most intriguing of all—why they stay. He follows Stalin’s “Road of Bones” across Siberia’s icy wilderness to the world’s coldest village of Oymyakon, and Nick Middleton’s account of his journey to the edge is never less than fascinating.

I am not a pro geographer, so I wouldn’t be able to give such a thorough information on Oymyakon weather specifics as Mr. Middleton did, but I’ll try to do it in a more simple way.

Oymyakon as well as the whole Yakutia is located at northern latitude and relatively far from oceans to not be dramatically affected by streams. Besides, mountains surround the Oymyakon village so tightly that they turned out the area to be a mere trap for air. The chilly air is literally kept and not allowed to go up and dispersed. Moreover, it continues being refrigerated, because of its inability to be warmed up in the course of the short daytime. That makes Oymyakon possible to hold the chilly distinction of being the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth.

Photographs of Oymyakon, Yakutia, Siberia/Russia. The world’s coldest inhabited village!

I took the below Oymyakon pictures during my trip with friends. See more photo sets in the post A Journey to the Pole of Cold.

Answer to the question, Why is Oymyakon so cold?

So why did people choose to live in such a chilly trap as Oymyakon, and how do they manage to survive in extreme cold, according to Nick Middleton?

His answers can be found in the interview he gave to the National Geographic Channel. Below, please, find the Q&A.

Why would people choose to live in such an inhospitable place?

Before the 1920s and 30s, Oymyakon was a seasonal stop for reindeer herders. But the Soviet government, in its efforts to settle nomadic populations—claiming they were difficult to control and technologically and culturally backward—made the site a permanent settlement.

What is there to eat so far north?

All people eat is reindeer and horsemeat. Medics say the reason they don’t suffer from malnutrition is that there must be lots of micronutrients in their animals’ milk.

There is a short summer season during which people can grow things. But for the most part people don’t eat fruit or vegetables.

How do people keep warm?

Fur. Fur is considered a luxury in the West but it is the only thing that keeps you warm. Most of my crew wore synthetic fibers, and they were cold and miserable. My hat was raccoon, my coat was made from the skins of a flock of sheep, and I had knee-high reindeer boots. Reindeer fur is particularly good at keeping you warm, because the shaft of each hair is hollow, and the air [in the shafts] has an insulating effect.

You had a pretty icy introduction to Siberia when you arrived. You became a member of the Walrus Club [a group of people who swim in rivers and lakes in winter, sometimes called polar bear clubs in other parts of the world]. How did it feel to take an ice bath in the frozen river?

It was short and sweet, but my biggest concern was that I would have a heart attack. It isn’t so much the water but getting out that is the worst—that brief moment between the water and contacting the air, which is about -22 Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius).

I lost it within minutes of getting out—it was as if I went into a state of shock. I began to lose feeling in my body and, for about 24 hours, walking was tricky and I felt out of it. It was difficult to think and remember, and I felt groggy, as if I had a bad hangover. I have no doubt that if the walrus club had not been there, I would have frozen to death.

What are some other consequences of living in such a frigid environment?

Dealing with dead people. In permafrost zones, where the top few feet of ground tends to thaw in the summer and then refreeze, large buried objects tend to rise to the surface. This is particularly bad when buried coffins rise to the surface after several years.

The whole tradition of burial is not a Siberian one—it came from Europeans. Siberians used to perform sky burials where they would wrap the bodies in canvas and hang them from the trees, but the Soviet government probably discouraged this.

Sadly, a little girl died from pneumonia while we were visiting. To dig a grave, the townspeople lit a long bonfire for about an hour, which allowed the ground to thaw a little, then dug a couple of inches and repeated the process for a couple of days before they were able to bury the coffin.

Transportation can’t be easy in those temperatures. How do people get around?

Cars and trucks housed in heated garages are fine. But diesel freezes at -58 Fahrenheit [-50 degrees Celsius]. It’s a pretty common practice to light a bonfire beneath the fuel tank to keep it from freezing. Axle grease also freezes and is warmed with a blowtorch.

What effects did the cold have on your expedition? Did you run into any problems in Oymyakon?

Pen ink freezes. Batteries lose power faster. Metal sticks to skin. The first time I tried to take some stills with my camera the metal stuck to my nose.

We had severe difficulties with filming. The eyepiece froze, and you couldn’t see through it. The camera lenses did strange things, because the metal casings and screws holding the lenses in place were made of different metals that contracted at different rates and distorted the images—so really we had absolutely no idea whether we were actually shooting anything.

All the electronics in the video camera froze so film was the only technology that worked. But even the film would get brittle and crack.

What adaptations have the people of Oymyakon had to make to live in this environment?

In the last ten years, post-Soviet Union, people have returned to a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Everyone owns some livestock, and they rely on this livestock for food and for barter.

There are times when coal deliveries are irregular and the local power station—which makes indoor life bearable—must burn wood to keep hot water flowing to the homes. If the power ceases, the town shuts down in about five hours, and the pipes freeze and crack.

One of the guys who runs the power station hasn’t been paid in nine months, but he keeps doing his job. There is a great sense of community. People do what they need to do to survive. For them, extreme [subzero] temperatures are normal.

Interviewed by Bijal P. Trivedi
Via National Geographic Channel

A short explanation regarding Oymyakon weather phenomenon given by tanetahi, a Flickr pro user:

– The reason Oymyakon gets so cold in winter is the combination of its elevation above sea level and its being sited in a valley between two mountain ranges. The valley behaves as a frost-hollow in calm anticyclonic weather during the Siberian winter, so yes, it does kind of make its own weather.


The World’s Coldest Road Trip. Yakutsk – Oymyakon – Magadan. Winter 2012-2013.
6-Day Travel Yakutsk to Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited village on Earth.


Find more facts & photographs in Oymyakon-related posts.

Check also a report of our fascinating Journey to the Pole of Cold, Oymyakon.

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