Extreme places on Earth

The world is pretty big and incredibly diverse, so whenever you’re somewhere and you think ‘it can’t get much hotter or wetter or higher than this’; it probably can. So where are the undisputed champions: Where are the most extreme places on earth? First let’s look at the world’s hottest place. Temperatures taken with a thermometer on weather stations would have you believe that El Azizia in Libya with it’s highest recorded temperature of 58 °C or Death Valley in California with it’s record high reading of 56.7 °C are the hottest places on Earth. But according to new satellite imagery data, they’re not even serious contenders. There is a salt desert in the east of Iran, that’s about 480 kilometers long and 320 wide, called Dasht-e Lut, which, as of recently, is officially the hottest place on Earth. The surface of the sand here reaches a scorching 70.7 Celsius, that’s almost double the temperature of your body. So, I guess that begs the question; who is the poor scientist who had to sit out here with a thermometer and take a reading every day? I hope they had a fridge at least. Well, we know scientists can be a little crazy sometimes, but no one is that crazy. The data actually comes from a NASA satellite called AQUA that monitors, among other things, the heat radiation of the earth’s surface. From 2003 to 2010 the satellite would image the entire planet every 1 to 2 days, giving us data on temperatures, clouds, winds and much more. The local name for the desert is Gandom Beryan, which means “Roasted Grain”. The story is that travelling farmers spilt their seeds on the sand and within just a few days, it was scorched and ruined by the heat before it could be collected. Not that you get a lot of people travelling through, it’s certainly no picnic out there. But people do come to see the beautiful, otherworldly sandcastles in the western corner of the desert. The erosion has carved teetering towers that make it seem like some lost, ancient city. Right, so if that got you feeling a little hot under the collar, let’s all cool off by heading in the opposite direction; the coldest place on earth. The lowest recorded temperature is -89.2 °C, taken in 1983 at the Sovient Vostok Station. But the station was just there to make these measurements, so, you know, the scientist were being paid to be there, in cold hard cash – very cold hard cash. But imagine if your whole town CHOSE to live like this. Oymyakon is the coldest permanent settlement on Earth, with some 500 people living in freezing temperatures, up in the North-Eastern tip of Russia. In winter it has got as low as −67.7 °C and typically averages -45 C (-49 F) in December and January. The craziest thing is that, unlike Antarctica where you’re lucky if you get above -30 Celcius, even in summer, Oymyakon has hit + 34.6 °C in July, and normally averages around 20 °C for the summer months. Imagine trying to buy a yearly wardrobe that covered a difference of 100 Celcius! Enough about temperature, we’re moving on to new heights, or just really high heights. So what is the world’s highest point? Now this seems like quite an obvious one, right? The highest point must be the highest mountain; which is, yep, that’s right; Mount Everest in the Himalayas. But when we say “the highest mountain”, what do we really mean? We mean Everest’s peak is 8,848 m above sea level, and no other mountain can match that. If you measure from the base to the peak, which is quite hard to do because there isn’t some nice red line that says “the mountain starts here,” then actually the tallest mountain is Mauna Kea, at a massive 10,203 m. But it’s deep in the Pacific Ocean, the first 6,000 metres of Mauna Kea are underwater, so it doesn’t really help us find the world’s highest point. Let me introduce; Chimborazo. Okay, I know it’s only 6,267 m above sea level, but here’s the twist; its peak is the furthest away from the center of the earth of any mountain. You know that globe you had in geography class that was a perfect sphere? Well the earth isn’t actually like that, it bulges around the equator, so the land, and the sea level, are actually a few kilometers higher at these points than anywhere else. Since Chimborazo is in Ecuador, named for being right on the equator, it gets this little boost from the Earth’s bulge, so its 6,384.4 km from the center of the Earth, which beats Everest at 6,382.3 km from the Earth’s center. In your face Everest, you midget. So that’s the highest point, but what about the lowest. The lowest place on the earth’s surface is The Dead Sea. It’s not really a sea, it’s more a really salty lake, 50 km long and 15 wide, and it lies almost half a kilometer below sea level, 429 metres to be exact. It gets its name from the almost total lack of aquatic life there; you’re more likely to find chips in it than fish. Its salt quantity is so high that swimmers just float on the surface, like a human inflatable. But if we don’t stick to the earth’s surface, we can find places much deeper. In the Pacific Ocean, just south of Japan, there is Mariana’s Trench and its lowest point is called Challenger Deep and bottoms out at 10,916 m below sea level. Here the pressure reaches over 1,000 times what it is at the surface. So unless you happen to be an invertebrate or other soft-bodied organism, you would probably end up as soup under the immense pressure, that deep underwater. Have you ever had that feeling when you’re at the top of a really high building or say, a waterfall and you wonder what it would feel like if you jumped? Well you’re not alone. It’s often called the “High-Place Phenomenon” and some psychologists thinks it’s your brain getting confused by the feeling of dizziness and vertigo, even though no realistic threat is being posed. So imagine what it would feel like if you took a trip to the top of Mount Thor, the world’s greatest vertical drop. This gigantic cliff face can be found on Baffin Island in Canada and boasts a 1,250 m vertical drop. It would take the average person over 15 seconds to reach the bottom if they jumped off it. And because the world is a crazy place, people do jump off it. In fact, Baffin Island has become something of a hotspot for Base Jumpers who brave the Arctic conditions and Polar Bears to hop in a wingsuit and scream “Geronimo” as they take a wild plunge from Thor’s Peak The thought of doing one of those jumps makes my mouth go dry. Do you know where else would do that? The driest place on earth. Down the west coast of South America, tucked behind the Andes, lies a 1,000 km strip called The Atacama Desert. It’s so dry that it only receives around 15 mm of rain every year and as little as 1 mm in some parts. That means if you spit on the ground, you’re giving it more moisture than it’ll see all year. This isn’t just the recent recordings either; geologists believe that it’s been like this for some 200 million years, so, you never know, an Argentinosaurus could have come along and dribbled on the exact same dry spot. Surprisingly, the land isn’t completely barren and some plants and animals do exist, mainly around the edges of the desert. And some years, if you do enough rain dances and manage to get over the usual 15 mm of precipitation, then huge areas of the desert burst into colour. A variety of seeds and bulbs lay dormant through the dry years but come alive in a visual symphony when the rains do finally return. When discussing dry places. We should also mention The Dry Valleys in Antarctica. In an enormous continent of whiteness, these are a strange sight; permanently ice free valleys. Well, they do have a very small number of frozen lakes but it’s mainly just harsh grey looking dirt. The reason it’s so dry is due to katabatic winds. The surrounding mountains block the flowing ice and then, when cold air comes over the top, the gravity pulls it downwards, making it rip through the valleys at up to 320 kilometers per hour. This heats the air and evaporates all the ice and snow. This wind also whips up tiny stones and sandblasts the boulders into these beautiful carvings called “vertifacts” that look like enormous dinosaur skeletons. It gives it the feeling of being in an alien world. And in fact, because of their alien-like features, both the Dry Valleys and the Atacama Desert are used to test various NASA projects, such as the rovers for Mars and one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. If you want to escape these dry sci-fi landscapes, where better than the world’s wettest place? Mawsynram, a village in north-eastern India, holds’ the Guinness World Record as the world’s wettest place with a current average of 11,872 mm per year. To give you some perspective, that’s ten times what rainy old England normally averages. The causes of all this rain are related to the Khasi Hills, which are placed right in the path of airflow that comes from the Bay of Bengal. One key factor is that the air coming over the hills creates uplift and cooling which increases the condensation, so it’s like you’re constantly pumping the clouds full of more water. The title of “world’s wettest place” is actually contested by two towns in Columbia; Lloro and Puerto Lopez. Lloro had an average of 13,299 mm of rainfall, for a few years in the 1950s but the equipment was pretty outdated so we don’t know how much we can trust these figures. As for Puerto Lopez, although it has decent records to show a 12,892 mm precipitation average, there are some months missing in the middle of 50 years of data so unfortunately they cannot claim the title. Seems a bit harsh but hey, if you’re sitting inside all day, you should have time to do your filing properly, right? If you’ve forgotten your umbrella, maybe we should look for somewhere else for you to go. How about the world’s highest permanent settlement? This honour goes to La Rinconada, in the Peruvian Andes. It sits at the bottom of the “The Sleeping Beauty” Glacier and is a whopping 5,100 m above sea level. It has a pretty stable climate and is typically a degree or two above freezing all year round. So what’s the appeal for the 50,000 or so inhabitants? It’s one of mankind’s old loves; gold! There are gold mines nearby and this is where almost all the economy comes from. But the way workers are paid is very strange. Most are part of the cachorreo system. This means they go 30 days unpaid and then on the 31st day, they can take as much ore as they can carry and hope that they find gold in it. It’s a complete lottery of course but it’s common practice to pocket a promising looking stone even when it’s not a cachorreo day. As well as the peculiar payment system, the city is not the safest place either. There is no plumbing or sanitation system and since mercury is used in the gold refinement process, the water is pretty contaminated. But hey, who needs toilets and non-toxic water if you’ve got yourself some shiny shiny gold. And finally, if you really want to get away from it all, you need to head down to the most remote inhabited place on Earth. Around 300 people live on the Island of Tristan da Cunha, which is 2,000 kilometres from its nearest neighbours on the island of St Helena; that’s a long way to paddle if you need to tell them to turn the music down. The nearest continental land is South Africa, some 2,400 kilometres away. It’s actually a small cluster of islands; one is uninhabitable, some are just wildlife reserves, but the main island where people live is 98km2. And these people are members of the British Commonwealth. The island was discovered by the Portuguese admiral Tristão da Cunha, in 1506 but was only used as a stop off point for merchants and whalers until the early 19th century. The British declared it part of its empire in 1816, due to two main concerns. Firstly, during the war with the United States, the US used it to launch attacks on British merchant fleets. And secondly, it was to stop Napoleon from escaping from St Helena. Napoleon had already escaped once before, from a prison on Elba, near Italy, so after the battle of Waterloo, the British took no chances and sent him as far away as they could from anyone. The navy on Tristan Da Cunha would patrol the waters and look out for any French attack. Once Napoleon died, from arsenic poisoning he got from his wallpaper, the fleet decided to stay and so the island has been inhabited ever since. It was briefly evacuated in 1961 when the island’s volcano, Queen Mary’s peak, erupted. They have their own economy, largely from renting out their outland fishing waters. They also sell unique coins and postage stamps that are something of a collector’s item. Since it’s hard to trade when you live 2,000 kilometres away from everyone, most of their supplies come eight to nine times a year from South African fishing boats. It makes ordering off Amazon a bit of slow process. They do have internet access now though, since an internet café opened up in 2006. But the internet is so slow on the island that when someone wants to Skype a relative the entire island has to turn off their internet access to free up bandwidth. The world certainly is full of extreme places that push the limits and boggle the mind, but unless you want to be incredibly hot, perishingly cold, unnervingly high, incredibly dehydrated, completely soaked, or just really really far from anyone, then you’re best of staying right where you are.

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