The coldest place on Earth has been identified in the heart of Antarctica.
The lowest temperature was recorded on August 10, 2010, and has been measured by satellite to be a bitter minus 93.2 Celsius (-135.8F).
Researchers say it is a preliminary figure, and as they refine data from various space-borne thermal sensors it is quite likely they will determine an even colder figure by a degree or so.
The previous record low of minus 89.2C was also measured in Antarctica.
This occurred at the Russian Vostok base on July 21, 1983.
It should be stated this was an air temperature taken a couple of metres above the surface, and the satellite figure is the “skin” temperature of the ice surface itself. But the corresponding air temperature would almost certainly beat the Vostok mark.
The coldest place on Earth has been identified in the heart of Antarctica
“These very low temperatures are hard to imagine, I know,” said Ted Scambos from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Dr. Ted Scambos was speaking in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, the largest annual gathering of Earth scientists.
He and colleagues have been examining the data records from polar orbiting satellites stretching back some 30 years.
They find the coldest moments in Antarctica occur in the dark winter months at high elevations, where the extremely dry and clear air allows heat to be radiated very efficiently out into space.
It is evident that many super-cold spots are “strung out like pearls” along the ridges that link the high points, or domes, in the interior of the continent.
They are not quite at the ridge crests, but set slightly back down the slope.
The cold pockets run in a line for hundreds of kilometres between Dome Argus [Dome A] and Dome Fuji [Dome F]. They all achieve more or less the same low temperature between minus 92C and minus 94C. The minus 93.2C figure is the temperature event in which the team has most confidence. It was recorded at a latitude of 81.8 degrees South and a longitude of 59.3 degrees East, at an elevation of about 3,900m.
One of the spacecraft instruments being used in the study is the Thermal Infrared Sensor on the recently launched Landsat-8.
By way of comparison, the hottest recorded spot on Earth – again by satellite sensor – is the Dasht-e Lut salt desert in southeast Iran, where it reached 70.7C in 2005.
The coldest place in the Solar System will likely be in some dark crater on a planetary body with no appreciable atmosphere. On Earth’s Moon, temperatures of minus 238C have been detected.
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An American attempt to bore down into Lake Whillans, a body of water buried almost 1 kilometer under the Antarctic ice, has achieved its aim.
Scientists reported on Sunday that sensors on their drill system had noted a change in pressure, indicating contact had been made with the lake.
A camera was then sent down to verify the breakthrough.
The Whillans project is one of a number of such ventures trying to investigate Antarctica’s buried lakes.
In December, a British team abandoned its efforts to get into Lake Ellsworth after encountering technical difficulties.
The Russians have taken water samples from Lake Vostok, although they have yet to report any big discoveries.
Lake Whillans is sited in the west of Antarctica, on the southeastern edge of the Ross Sea.
It is less of a lake and more or a dense system of streams, almost like a delta, that covers some 60 square km. The liquid body is quite shallow – just a few metres in depth.
The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (Wissard) team has been using a hot-water drill to melt a 30-cm-diameter hole through the overlying ice.
An American attempt to bore down into Lake Whillans, a body of water buried almost 1 kilometer under the Antarctic ice, has achieved its aim
Breakthrough to the lake surface was reported on the project’s website.
The intention, now that the hole is secure, is to lower various sampling tools and sensors into the lake to study its properties and environment.
Some of the samples will be assessed onsite at the ice surface in temporary labs, and others will be returned to partner universities for more extensive analysis.
The Wissard blog said the thickness of the overlying ice was measured to be 801m, which agreed well with the estimates from seismic imaging.
More than 300 large bodies of water have now been identified under the White Continent.
They are kept liquid by geothermal heat and pressure, and are part of a vast and dynamic hydrological network at play under the ice sheet.
Some of the lakes are connected, and will exchange water. But some may be completely cut off, in which case their water could have been resident in one place for thousands of years, and that means they probably play host to microorganisms unknown to modern science.
The Whillans area is not as deep as either Vostok (4 km) or Ellsworth (3 km), and its water is exchanged frequently by the under-ice streams over months and years.
Indeed, satellite measurements have revealed the lake rapidly filling and draining. This was evident from measurements of the height of the overlying ice surface, which raised itself in response to an increase in water volume, and then slumped down as the water spread to a new location.
Scientists are keen to study Antarctica’s subglacial hydrological systems because liquid water beneath the ice sheet will influence its movement (the ice above Lake Whillans is moving at about 300m per year). Modeling the sheet’s long-term stability in a warming world has to take this into account.
These under-ice environments may also provide fascinating insights into the potential habitability of some moons in the Solar System.
Europa, a satellite of Jupiter, and Enceladus, which orbits Saturn, both have large volumes of liquid water buried beneath their icy crusts.
A breakthrough discovery has been made by Russian scientists after they drilled down through four kilometres of Antarctic ice to Lake Vostok that has been sealed for the last 20 million years.
Professor John Priscu, veteran Antarctic researcher, says that he expects to see “unique organisms” in the lake.
But it was revealed this may not be the only surprise from sub-glacial Lake Vostok, a body of water as large as Lake Ontario.
As scientists began the search for new life, a state-run news agency in Russia claimed that an extraordinary cache of Hitler’s archives may be buried in a secret Nazi ice bunker near the spot where yesterday’s breakthrough was made.
“It is thought that towards the end of the Second World War, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and started constructing a base at Lake Vostok,” claimed RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency.
The news agency cited Admiral Karl Dontiz in 1943 saying: “Germany’s submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world, in Antarctica.”
According to German naval archives, months after the Nazis surrendered to the Allies in April 1945, a U-530 submarine arrived at the South Pole from the Port of Kiel.
The crew is rumored to have constructed a still undiscovered ice cave “and supposedly stored several boxes of relics from the Third Reich, including Hitler’s secret files”.
A later claim was that a U-977 submarine delivered remains of Hitler and Eva Braun to Antarctica in the hope they could be cloned from their DNA. The submariners then went to Argentina to surrender, it was claimed.
A breakthrough discovery has been made by Russian scientists after they drilled down through four kilometres of Antarctic ice to Lake Vostok that has been sealed for the last 20 million years
Microbiologists say that the lake could offer a glimpse of unique life forms. The project has been closely watched by both NASA and the Russian Space Agency.
One hope is that it will give a glimpse of conditions on Jupiter’s moon Europa where water is also believed to exist under a thick ice cover.
“The discovery of microorganisms in Lake Vostok may mean that, perhaps, the first meeting with extraterrestrial life could happen on Europa,” said Dr. Vladimir Kotlyakov, Director of the Geography Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Specialists at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute will now test a sample of water that has been sucked from the lake, and frozen.
Last year, the expedition stopped 10 to 50 metres short of the lake after the weather closed in and the scientists were forced to abandon the expedition.
Academics say they have found “the only giant super-clean water system on the planet”. They forecast the extraordinary 5,400 cubic kilometres of pristine water will be “twice cleaner than double-distilled water”, and any life will have developed in total isolation.
“We’re not talking a new Loch Ness Monster – though we actually cannot really predict what to expect,” an expedition source told Ria Novosti.
“The lake water is a moving body, and despite being almost 4 km under the ice, there is an oxygen supply, and microorganisms have already been found in the ice drilled from close to the roof of Lake Vostok.”
Professor John Priscu told usnews.com in an email that the crews had been working “round the clock” to finish the project before the Antarctic summer ended, which meant no planes could fly from the remote Vostok Station, where temperatures are currently around minus 66C.
“If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet,” Prof. John Priscu said.
Geothermal heat under the ice keeps the lake liquid, and its conditions are often described as “alien” because they are thought to be akin to the subterranean lakes on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
“I think we’ll find unique organisms,” Prof. John Priscu, a microbiologist at the University of Montana, and a veteran Antarctic researcher who is on the trip told Scientific American.
On January 13, Prof. John Priscu said the team was progressing well, drilling 5.7 ft a day. He said they had switched from an ice drill to a thermal drill to melt through the last 16 to 32 ft of ice.
“This was the plan, but when you’re in the field, things can change,” Prof. John Priscu, who had been communicating with the group from his office in St. Petersburg, said.
“This has never been done before,” he told OurAmazingPlanet.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind drill, a one-of-a-kind borehole, and a one-of-a-kind lake, so I’m sure they’re making decisions on the fly all the time.”
The team had a deadline of Tuesday, before already ice-cold temperatures in the desolate spot drop another 40 degrees centigrade.
Valery Lukin, chief of the Russian Antactic Expedition, said last month: “We do not know what is waiting for us down there.”
On July 21, 1983, temperatures at Vostok Station hit the lowest level ever recorded on Earth – minus 89.2C.
When the breakthrough moment comes they must take care not to contaminate the hidden underground world with bacteria and fluids from the drilling.
To make sure the water stays completely pure, the machinery will not even touch the lake.
Instead suction will be used to suck samples of the unique water into the borehole, where it will freeze before being raised to the surface for analysis.
The team also faces the risk of an explosion with oxygen and nitrogen trapped below.
They are trying to make sure only a small amount of air can escape to avert the risk.
The scientists have been drilling 24 hours a day in three shifts as they race to break through before winter descends.
Environmental groups have criticized the work on the site – and the chemicals used such as kerosene to keep the hole open.
Others have said the site should not be explored but instead left in pristine condition.