Possibly due to an enduring “grass is always greener” fixation—and a craving to seek out and experience these supposed lusher pastures—many of us have a perennial fascination with “best places” lists: best places to live, work, and vacation; best places to slice into a porterhouse or dine on lobster. Often lavishly illustrated, publications of all flavors showcase the purported top beaches or resorts in a particular country or even throughout the world. In virtually all of these analyses (studies impossible to design and conduct truly objectively, of course), weather and climate play at least a salient, if not a pivotal, role. Year-round clement conditions make a good beach into a heavenly one and an otherwise unremarkable city a “quality lifestyle destination.” But what about places characterized by skyward conditions on the opposite end of the weather-comfort spectrum? What are the “worst weather places” in the world? Tornado Alley in the United States's Midwest? The South Pole? The Bermuda Triangle? The summit of Mount Everest? While these and other storied corners of the globe may pop into the minds of many due to their frequent references in media as “extreme,” careful consideration yields an equivocal “maybe—but then maybe not” foul weather verdict for any of them. Before taking a spin of the globe in search of the most meteorologically austere locations, a prospective severity explorer first needs to step back from rank conjecture and attempt to thoughtfully devise a structured bad-weather grading method: one guided by the spirit of objectivity.
First, what is the best way to define “bad” weather? Some of us thrive in heat yet despise cold, while others favor neither. “Hot” and “cold” are, of course, relative terms. A shivering night to a lifelong Cancun, Mexico, dweller is downright balmy to someone fresh off a Fairbanks, Alaska, winter. Stepping back yet further in scope, penguins don't read this magazine, nor do camels. No human, regardless of birthplace or fortitude, would last very long in either animal's respective clime without specialized equipment—and eventually some outside help from other humans. This list evolved from a wholly anthropocentric analysis: “bad” connotes conditions directly causing, in order, discomfort, pain, injury, and death to humans, be these conditions dizzying heat, jabbing cold, explosive and ceaseless wind, freezing rain, driving snowfall, or a combination of any of these. Fog, on the other hand, while having set the stage countless times for horrific automobile accidents and other kinetic mishaps, simply contributes indirectly to final doom (death), and does not directly inflict damage. For the purposes of this list, the more threatening to human life, the worse the weather.
Secondly, what is a “place”? Ten square miles? Twenty? For this list, the atmospheric conditions that make a particular place brutally austere define the areal extent of that place. A “place” may be a single mountain within a mountain range or the entire mountain range—if harsh atmospheric conditions strike with equal ferocity throughout all peaks, valleys, and glaciers of that mountain range. One square mile or hundreds of square miles may compose a “place”. While some lists focus on population centers, this one takes into consideration any swath of any altitude of the terrestrial surface of the planet (humans can't live naturally on water), so long as it experiences terrible weather. Places with temporary events that affect local atmospheric conditions such as erupting volcanoes or raging wildfires don't count, unless weather conditions at these places are sufficiently dangerous even without the addition of these factors.
Regarding the analysis of conditions themselves, persistency trumps capacity for this list of the terrible, as persistency begets inescapability—when that which persists threatens human life. A place where conditions are often calm and pleasant, but which can change and become extraordinarily brutal within a few hours, can also see threatening skies quickly heading back to serene and allowing an escape. A broad swath of the Midwestern United States has the capacity for 300-plus-mph winds—inside vicious tornadoes—but such storms strike relatively infrequently, and typically only during spring months. The vast majority of places in Tornado Alley never have, and likely never will, directly experience a tornado, much less one of such severity as an EF5. Certain high-latitude coastal regions or high-altitude mountains, on the other hand, do not have the atmospheric capacity for winds anywhere near those of an EF5 tornado, but they do experience persistent 60-mph gales throughout the year, with frequent sustained gusts much higher. Furthermore, when compiling a list of the very worst, a place that experiences a combination of two or more severe conditions takes precedent over a location with just one of those conditions. For example, certain locations on the planet experience excruciatingly cold temperatures, yet rarely see precipitation or high winds. A place that experiences slightly warmer (yet still bitterly cold) temperatures, yet also regularly experiences a combination of roaring winds and driving precipitation will garner a higher slot.
These are places most would only visit simply to lay claim to having stood there—briefly. We may not want to live at or anywhere near these locations, but, like that of dreamy beaches or vaunted restaurants, fascination with the naturally terrible and pitiless endures nevertheless.
During the research for this article I quickly realized that due to a sheer lack of comprehensive global meteorological data (especially for those places with the harshest climates), no such list could ever be objectively compiled. If decades worth of basic meteorological data were available for each square kilometer of the earth's surface, then researchers could churn that dataset through a set of algorithms tuned to determine the terrible. However, the meteorology world simply does not have this trove, so we're left with a “somewhat educated guesstimation, trying to be objective.” Where exactly are the 10 worst weather places on the planet? We don't know for sure. But the following locales, based on available data (and some anecdotal reports), are pretty good bets.
10. Oymyakon, Republic of Sakha, Russian Siberia
One of two locations claiming the title of “Northern Pole of Cold” (coldest known point in the Northern Hemisphere), the tiny village of Oymyakon (population around 500) experienced the coldest temperature ever recorded outside of Antarctica and the coldest for any permanently inhabited place on earth: −89.9°F, on February 6, 1933. Verkhoyansk, the other Russian Siberian location claiming the “Northern Pole of Cold” title, also recorded a similar temperature (on February 5 and 7, 1892). However, the World Meteorological Organization notes in its World Weather/Climate Extremes Archive, “By the opinion of the majority of Russian climatologists, the coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere is Oymyakon.”
Oymyakon experiences deadly cold during winter. From December through February, the nighttime low drops below −50°F on average, every single night. Translating to “non-freezing water” due to a nearby hot spring, Oymyakon—where graves take three days to dig and no crops grow—experiences temperatures upward of 86°F during its summer months, making it one of the places on the globe with the greatest annual temperature swing due to its location so far from a moderating body of water.
9. Bouvet Island
A Norwegian dependency, Bouvet Island is the most remote island in the world, with the nearest land being coastal Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, just over 1,000 miles distant. Less than 20 square miles (roughly 49 square kilometers) in area, Bouvet Island lies at 54° south latitude, deep in the tempestuous South Atlantic Ocean. The top of an extinct volcano, over 90 percent of the rugged island is covered by glacial ice. Temperatures, wind, and precipitation here are not as extreme as they can be in some of the most saliently horrible locations on this list, but inhospitable conditions persist throughout every day of every month, all year long. The average low temperature is freezing or below freezing for each month of the year, and the average high for each month rises to just a few degrees above freezing. Because the latitudinal belt in which the island lies is virtually free of land (with the exception of a small “tail” of Patagonian land at the southern tip of South America), powerful storms and screaming winds course across this tiny dot of glaciated land ceaselessly throughout the year. No humans live on Bouvet. Some just occasionally visit the island from ship-borne helicopters, as there are no safe landings anywhere on the island. The narrow, rocky beaches and cliffs provide breeding grounds for a variety of bird species, including a number of species of penguins.
8. Central Sahara Desert
At the heart of what is perhaps the world's most storied and infamous desert, sand seas (“ergs”), rocky open plains and plateaus, and salt flats compose the vast majority of the central Sahara of North Africa. Set far from the moderating effect of bodies of water, the interior Sahara experiences summertime temperatures that regularly soar past 122°F yet can plummet to below freezing in winter. According to the World Wildlife Fund, this incredibly dry portion of the Sahara experiences a single day temperature variation from 31°F to 99.5°F. Dust and sandstorms are frequent here, and there is little to no vegetation throughout much of this landscape for a person to escape the harsh elements. Of the sparse weather data that has been collected throughout this mostly uninhabited region, roughly 1 inch of rain falls annually, with just .2 inches, on average, falling in the eastern portion of this desert. Without outside help, or without happening upon one of the few oases found throughout this realm, a human would last just days during any part of the year here.
7. Southern Patagonian Andes
The longest continuous chain of mountains in the world, South America's Andes stretch from Venezuela to southern Chile and Argentina, where they protrude into a latitudinal belt of ocean almost completely devoid of land, known by sailors as the “furious 50s” and sometimes the “screaming 50s” due to their consistently powerful winds. With the exception of this tail of South America—and a few small islands—no land stands in the way of the roaring, powerful winds, powered by Antarctic low pressure cells, that circle this slice of the globe. These winds funnel into and through the upper reaches of the peaks of this part of the Andes, and year round bring powerful storms born of the southern oceans. Bitter cold temperatures, ceaseless snowfall that under the press of the area's infamous winds plasters even dead vertical terrain with plates of rime ice, and deafening gales rule these heights. While the mountains themselves provide some measure of shelter to the surrounding lowlands from the winds and storms, the high reaches of such mountains as Fitz Roy, Cerro Paine Grande, and the needle-like Cerro Torre take the full brunt of these deadly skies, often in life-sapping storms that persist for weeks on end. No weather stations have ever been placed in these mountains, as the conditions and terrain are too extreme.
6. Gandom-e Beryan, Dasht-e Lut, Iran
For decades, the record for highest temperature ever recorded on the planet stood at 136°F, measured at ‘Aziziya, Libya, on September 13, 1922. In 2012, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) invalidated this claim due to discrepancies they discovered after analyzing records of the instrumentation used at the time. According to the WMO, the all time record for highest temperature ever measured by a weather station on the planet is 134.1° F, on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek in California's Death Valley. But is this really the earth's most scorching locale?
An article published in the July 2011 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association on the subject of determining the hottest location on the planet noted that (at the time the article was published) there were 11,119 weather stations on the earth's land surface, meaning one station for every 5,024 square miles (for geometric example, this would be an area 70 by 70 miles), with the majority of these located in relatively populated areas, leaving the vast sweeps of the planet's hot, uninhabited deserts mostly uncharted from a temperature standpoint. Analyzing “radiometric land surface temperature” data detected from NASA's Earth Observing System's Aqua satellite (launched May 4, 2002), which utilized a “moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer” or “MODIS,” provided a comprehensive data set of the “skin temperatures” of the planet, that is, the temperature of the actual surface of the earth, not that of the air just above it (weather station temperature sensors are mounted between four and six feet above ground surface). The verdict for hottest location on the planet? Dasht-e Lut, which is Persian for the “emptiness desert,” in eastern-central Iran, with a land surface high temperature (in 2005) sensed to be an incredible 159.3°F over the course of 2003 to 2009. Death Valley, by comparison, had a high land surface temperature of 144.9°F in 2005.
Deep in the heart of the Lut lies a lifeless dark lava plateau. During the 1950s, a caravan spilled wheat here, and some days later another caravan came across the grain and found it burnt to a crisp. They named the plateau Gandom-e Beryan, which is Persian for “scorched wheat.”
5. Summit Camp, Greenland
Located close to the geographic center of Greenland, the summit of the Greenland ice sheet stands at 10,600 feet above mean sea level, and is home to Summit Camp, a small scientific research field facility established to support United States's National Science Foundation research projects. At roughly 72° 36' north latitude, 38° 25' west longitude, Summit Camp experiences some of the harshest polar conditions found throughout the globe due to its northern location and high altitude. The warmest months, June and July, each experience an average daily high temperature of 12.2°F, which is well below freezing. The coldest months, December and January, each have average nighttime low temperatures of −54.4°F, with November through April all having nighttime lows averaging −40°F or lower. The temperature at Summit Camp rarely exceeds 32°F.
Storms pound Summit Camp throughout the year, dumping snow and causing disorienting whiteout conditions for those on the ground. The slightest error in navigation here, even from one of the small buildings to another during one of the area's frequent storms, can lead to death in a matter of hours.
4. K2 Region of the Karakoram Himalaya
K2, also known as Mount Godwin Austin, stands 28,244 feet above sea level in the Karakoram Himalaya along the Pakistan/China border region. And while second in height to Mount Everest, K2 sits within 10 miles of three other of the earth's highest mountains, making this part of the globe arguably the “highest region in the world.” Due to its height and location, where fierce winter storms hammer the region as do snow-heavy, powerful monsoonal storms in the summer, K2 and the surrounding high mountains experience some of the most deadly weather in the world, year round. While Mount Everest has been climbed in the winter, K2 never has seen a winter ascent. Temperatures dip far too low during the winter months (reportedly below −76°F), and because of the extreme altitude, jet stream winds course across the peaks' highest slopes. No weather stations have been placed on the high slopes of these mountains, but from accounts from mountaineering expeditions to this region, the K2 region clearly deserves mention as not just one of the worst weather places in the world, but one of the deadliest.
3. Coastal Antarctica
Any global worst weather list would be woefully incomplete without noting at least one Antarctic location. Some might (very effectively) argue that this entire list could be populated exclusively by Antarctic locations. This entry is an entire continental coastline, stretching inland a few dozen miles, so it comprises many salient individual locations. Coastal Antarctica is where the highest, driest, and coldest continent meets arguably the most tumultuous body of water on the planet—what many geographers know as the Southern Ocean. Storms literally race around coastal Antarctica, bashing along the coastline, assailing points of land two, three, or more times during their lifespans. While not as cold as the high interior of the continent, temperatures along the coast and directly inland can be deadly to humans throughout the year. Although not on the coast itself, but on Ross Island which lies just off the Antarctic coast, McMurdo station doesn't experience a single month with an average high temperature above freezing. The coldest month, August, experiences a mean nighttime low of −25.2°F, while the warmest month, January, sees an average nighttime low of 22.1°F.
Winds along this coast can be absolutely fierce. At Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, a wind speed of 129 miles per hour was measured on August 25, 1995. Extreme katabatic winds are common along the coast, and can last for days on end. These winds form as dense, heavy, cold air speeds toward the coast under the press of gravity from the high interior of the continent. The highest wind speed ever recorded in Antarctica was a katabatic blast racing at 199 mph, at Dumont d'Urville Station on Adélie Land.
2. High Icefield Ranges of Yukon Territory and Alaska
This little known mountain range is home to Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak. Also in this range is Mount Saint Elias. The international border between the United States and Canada runs through its summit, so it is the second highest mountain in both Canada and the United States. Known as the “Himalaya of North America,” these peaks stand almost 20,000 feet above sea level, rising directly off of the storm-hurling Gulf of Alaska, and lie at roughly 60° north latitude. Home to the largest nonpolar mass of ice in the world, these seldom visited behemoths receive tremendous snowfall each year in treacherous storms that pound their slopes sometimes for weeks on end. According to researcher Gerald Holdsworth of the University of Calgary's Arctic Institute of North America, a temperature of −40°F was recorded on the lower reaches of Mount Logan (19,551 feet) one summer, and −22°C is common on the massive peak during its warmest months. Holdsworth also notes that the winds are even more notable on Logan for their ferocity than the temperatures—they once bent a reinforced mast for a weather station and tore the anemometer off its steel mounting plate, hurling it into the stormy distance. He recalls that during one expedition, he recovered a 50-pound box of kitchen gear that had been blown upslope. Mount Saint Elias (18,009 feet), which sees even fewer human footsteps than the rarely trodden Logan, lies just 10 miles from the shores of the Gulf of Alaska. Due to its proximity to the Gulf, it reportedly experiences even harsher weather than Logan, although no attempt has ever been made to establish a weather station on its steep slopes.
1. Vostok Station, Antarctica
Vostok (Russian for “East”) is a scientific research station on the east Antarctic Ice Sheet, 800 miles from the geographic South Pole. The “southern pole of cold,” earth's coldest known temperature ever measured, −128.6°F, was recorded at Vostok on July 21, 1983. For some perspective on the incredible severity of this temperature, absolute zero—the temperature at which all molecular motion stops—is −459.67°F. No animals can exist naturally at Vostok.
Measured on January 11, 2002, the record high temperature at Vostok is 10°F, which is 22°F below the freezing temperature of water. The average daily high temperature during January, the warmest month at Vostok, is −16.8°F. The average nighttime low during January—the warmest month—is an astounding −35.7° F. The record January low at Vostok is −67.2°F. Eight months have record low temperatures below −100°F, and the average nighttime low temperature for all months from April through September is −90°F.
While the South Pole, which is markedly warmer than Vostok, is relatively calm in terms of wind, Vostok, which lies at 11,444 feet above mean sea level, experiences persistent winds ranging from 10-60 mph. Less than one inch of precipitation falls on average at Vostok per year. The air at this forlorn corner of Antarctica is almost completely devoid of moisture.
Vostok's mere existence as an outpost is a testament to humanity's ability to wield technological influence over an environment. Perhaps the only greater challenge of human survivability is space travel.
ED DARACK is an independent author and photographer. Learn more at darack.com.