6:51am

Tue January 7, 2014
Science

Can't Stand The Cold Snap? Don't Go To Antarctica

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 6:56 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And with much of the nation is in the middle of this brutal cold snap, let's take a moment to hear from scientists who study other planets or even the chilliest places on Earth. Those researchers commonly encounter temperatures that make this news-making cold seem downright balmy. We asked NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel to find out just how low it can go.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: I caught up with researcher Paul Mayewski yesterday just as he was headed out of town.

PAUL MAYEWSKI: Actually, I'm on my way to Antarctica. I'm in Kennedy Airport getting ready to get on a plane that'll take me eventually to Ushuaia, Argentina to catch the ship.

BRUMFIEL: Mayewski is with the University of Maine. He studies ice cores - columns of frozen water that can act just like tree rings to tell us what the climate used to be like. He's traveled to glaciers and the arctic, but the coldest place was the Interior of East Antarctica.

MAYEWSKI: Daily temperatures were on the order of about minus 55 degrees Centigrade.

BRUMFIEL: OK. I just want to run that through Google here. Minus 55 C to F. Minus 67?

MAYEWSKI: Yep, and that's without the wind chill.

BRUMFIEL: At those temperatures, you've got to keep all your supplies inside your jacket just to keep them from freezing solid.

MAYEWSKI: It's super cold. Chocolate, everything, everything that you eat that hasn't been right against your body all day is like eating ice, obviously. It's a great time to crack your teeth if you don't remember to warm up some of the things you're going to eat.

BRUMFIEL: OK. So that's cold for Earth. But it's toasty compared to other parts of the solar system. Check out the forecast on Saturn's moon Titan.

ELIZABETH TURTLE: Titan's surface temperature is 94 Kelvin which is -290 Fahrenheit.

BRUMFIEL: Elizabeth Turtle is with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. She's part of the Cassini mission which studies Titan. It's so cold there that the moon's bedrock is frozen water. Here methane is a liquid instead of a gas.

TURTLE: You get the methane in the atmosphere...

BRUMFIEL: It's so cold there that the Moon's bedrock is frozen water. Here methane is a liquid instead of a gas.

TURTLE: You get the methane in the atmosphere condensing into clouds raining out on to the surface, and then running across the surface eroding it into channels, rivers and lots of lakes.

BRUMFIEL: Getting colder but science can go even lower. Back here on Earth, Sara Haravifard is a physicist who works at Argon National Laboratory.

SARA HARAVIFARD: You know, (unintelligible) without too much trouble, we can get to minus 459.13 Fahrenheit.

BRUMFIEL: In some sense, temperature is just the jiggling of molecules and atoms. And at the temperatures at which Haravifard works, the jiggling mostly stops and weird things start happening. Electricity can flow without resistance. If you stir a cup of liquid helium, it will keep whirling forever. Haravifard studies materials at these low temperatures in order to figure out how they work. Well, normally she does anyway. When I called her, it was minus 14 and she couldn't get her driveway clear.

HARAVIFARD: The problem is not the snow. It's very cold so it's the frostbite I'm worried about.

BRUMFIEL: Antarctic Researcher Paul Mayewski has some advice that might help.

MAYEWSKI: Wear plenty of layers. Keep your skin as covered as you can - don't expose anything. And try to move as much as you can.

BRUMFIEL: You know what? It can even be fun.

MAYEWSKI: If you're well dressed and you're keeping warm on the inside, being out in the cold can be very enjoyable.

BRUMFIEL: Easy for him to say. The spot in Antarctica he's headed to, he says temperatures are in the high 20s right now. That's a lot warmer than most places here in the States.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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