’Tis bitter cold–but how far can it go?

Can I start with a tale from my early youth? As some of you already know I spent part of my early childhood, as son of an adventurous German, on the western slopes of India’s Deccan Ghats, in the jungles there, interacting with stone-age tribals. The Katkaris lived in simple wooden huts, and had no metal, apart from a few knives and pots they had traded.

One day, on our trip to our jungle refuge, we took a new acquisition along with us: a large thermos flask, which my father filled with ice cubes. They were still intact when we arrived at our destination. On this occasion we had asked the train driver to stop at a particular point in the middle of the jungle, so we could alight and have the Katkaris help us carry our equipment. An aside: we had to lug everything ourselves for half a mile or so, to where they were waiting. You see the train with its puffing steam engine was not something they were willing to approach too closely.

When we reached them they took our stuff and asked my father what the new container was. He opened the thermos and extracted a cube of ice. They looked at it in wonder, and he placed it on the outstretched hand of a tribal. This man withdrew his hand in horror, crying “Hot!” I picked up the cube and placed it on the hand of a young boy, one of my jungle companions. He too let it fall, shrieking the same comment.

The point is that none of these people, nobody from the tribe, had ever known anything that was colder than 15° Celsius. That was the temperature of the mountain streams in the middle of winter. And they had never touched an object that was colder than around 20°. The sensation of a cube of ice on their skin was foreign to them — completely outside their realm of experience. They thought it must be hot.

Western Ghats Katkaris in the late 1930s — photo by Alois Friedel

Another aside? My father told me that when he had, for the very first time, shown the tribals a large black-and-white photo (like the one above), they had been full of wonder. Such a marvellous drawing! And you can recognise everyone! The Katkari chief Ravji pointed to each person, identifying them by name — except for one man on the photo whom he did not recognize. I leave it to you to deduce who that was and why he didn’t recognize him.

Now we come to the topic of the day: how cold can it get?

In the late 1970s we moved out of the city of Hamburg, Germany, to a small town called Hollenstedt, located between fields and forests. We had bought a house that was not in great condition (but affordable!), and set about modernizing it. One of the first things was to switch from coal stoves to modern central oil heating. To save space we had the two cubic meter tank put into the outhouse on the right, and connected it to the oil burner in the cellar with a copper tube.

My in-law family Ernst and Regina laid out the floor heating, over which tons of cement were later poured.

Everything worked fine and we settled down for life in the countryside. Autumn was beautiful, the weather was mild, the fruit trees were bountiful. Then winter came, and it got cold — but nothing our new heating system could not deal with. Christmas brought warm temperatures that melted the modest amount of snow we had had the week before.

Then: while southern parts of the country were still enjoying a balmy +15°C, on December 28 1978 frigid air started streaming into northern Germany, from Scandinavia and Russia, where temperatures had dropped to minus 30°. It began to snow, like I had never seen before in my life. The picture on the left shows the cover of one of Germany’s largest magazines, reporting on the “Six-day War against the Snow.” The other news magazine, Der Spiegel, still has images of that week on its Internet portal. They give you an impression of what lay in store for us in Hollenstedt.

The first problem was that we were trapped. The long driveway to our house was covered in a meter of snow the next day, and it kept snowing. After a couple of days I tried, with the help of a neighbour, to dig a path for our car. But that was impossible. Human labour was not up to the task. It was pointless anyway, since roads and the autobahn were impassable (see the cover of Stern above). The same applied to the railway.

And it turned out that we were the lucky ones. The power supply in Hollenstedt remained intact, so that oil burners still worked, unlike further up north, where freezing families had to be rescued, sometimes by helicopter. More than 5,000 people were evacuated, 17 people died. We had one problem, though: the copper tube, leading from the oil tank into the cellar, froze and the burner stopped working. I had to heat the critical exposed portion of the tube with a hair drier to get the oil to flow again. After a week it was all over, and things thankfully returned to normal.

The next chapter: a few weeks later I was producing a science documentary for one of our national TV channels and flew to Chicago to do an interview with two famous programmers from Northwestern University. As our plane approached for landing I looked out and said to my director: “Look, the lake is frozen!” Horst scoffed and explained patiently to me that an inland body of water the size of Lake Michigan could not freeze over. From the height we were flying the waves and ripples gave the illusion of being frozen.

I believed Horst, who had much more experience travelling the world — until the next day, at breakfast, I told him I wanted to see a car race that was taking place close to our hotel. He agreed and we walked over to the lake. Horst gasped: the water was frozen, and the car race took place on the ice of the lake (I had seen it announced in the morning TV news). Incidentally the whole city was covered in snow, with entire rows of cars completely immobilised. Chicago had experienced one of the worst snowstorms in history, with a peak of 29 inches of snow on the ground. We had arrived on the last flight in and left on the first flight that was able to take off from O’Hare Airport.

For me, with Hollenstedt and Chicago, that was the winter that was. Now I understood cold. Or did I? A few years later I was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was early January and the weather outside was very pleasant — jeans and blazer were fine. After the CES I was scheduled to visit our friend Jutta in Minneapolis, but called her to inquire: “I saw that it is minus 40°F where you are. Should I cancel?” No, she said, it wasn’t a problem. “I’ll pick you up at the airport.” For Europeans: –40°F translates to –40°C — that’s where the two scales meet.

So I flew to Minneapolis, Fargo country, and Jutta was there to drive me to her place. It was warm and cosy, in her car and in her flat, which she shared with a room-mate. The next morning I looked out my window and saw everything sparkling white. So I decided to go for a walk. It was amazing: the trees, bushes and fences were covered with the most beautiful ice crystals, gleaming in the sun. I had never seen anything like this in my life.

When I got back to the flat the two girls were waiting at the door. They grabbed me, pulled me in and started rubbing my face. “What’s going on?” I wanted to know. They stopped rubbing and started examining my fingers, nose, ears, even my scalp. “Are you crazy?” they said. “How long were you outside?” You see the wind chill that morning had been –80°F (according to the formula used at the time — today you would call it –60°F, which is –50°C). Wind chill takes into account how much the moving air will lower your body and especially your skin temperature, how prone you will be to frostbite. Which is what the girls were looking for: white spots of dying skin. Fortunately none were found.

That was the coldest I had and have experienced in my life. Apparently in the years around 1980 Nature was playing around with me, flexing its muscle, showing me what it could do. I’m glad I did not go to a place where it can really push the limit. Oymyakon, a rural town in Siberia, has winter temperatures as low as minus 71°C (–95°F). If you want to know what life is like in the coldest permanently inhabited places on Earth, put on a warm overcoat and watch this 60-minutes Australia report on Oymyakon.

But that is not the worst. My friend Robert Schwarz is an astrophysicist who manages the Keck Array collection of five telescopes at the South Pole. He has spent a dozen winters, nine-and-a-half month each time, at the Antarctic station. There temperatures can drop to minus 82°C (–116°F). In 2014 he sent me pictures from his workplace.

And why is Robert doing this? Well, apart from the scientific research he is also preparing for a very special trip. He is one of 700 candidates for a place on Mars One, a project aimed at establishing a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet by 2025. There the average temperature is –50°C (–80°F), with night temperatures plummeting to about –73°C (–100°F). It would be a one-way trip.

Was good knowing you, Robert. You are one brave dude! In this connection read my article: Populate the planets? Really?

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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