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19 September 2016

5 of the Coldest Cities in the World

When we think of bitterly cold places to live, the mind tends to conjure images of small villages and towns, collections of houses dotted sparsely across long stretches of heavy snow, with residents wrapped in 18 layers dragging sleds full of provisions homewards. It’s a fairly accurate assessment, as urban expansion and frostbite don’t mix.

That being said, there are a few places in the northernmost reaches of the world where larger, more populous settlements have developed, in spite of the bitter cold they have to endure. These places are hardy, fascinating pockets of humanity, each with their own collective approach to the yearly deep freezes. Here are 5 of the chilliest.

Yellowknife – Canada

With a population of around 20,000, Yellowknife is by far the largest city in the Northern Territories. It sits around 400km below the Arctic Circle, on the western edge of Yellowknife Bay (both named for a local native tribe, a subset of the Dene people). How cold is it? Well in January average lows hit around -29°C, with the record low being a-51°C.

With Yellowknife though, the real killer is the wind chill, which can be lethal, considering that Yellowknife is coastal. It can be well below -30, and at that level the risk of frostbite is very real. In the schools, they use wind chill factor to determine whether or not the kids can play outside on a given day.

Harbin – China

Nicknamed ‘ice city’, Harbin is the most north-easterly city in China. It’s also massive, containing over 10 million people. Trust China to have such a massive, densely populated place right in the middle of a goddamn freezer. In actuality, Harbin’s culture is a curious blend of Chinese, Japanese, Russian and European, as evidenced by their yearly ‘Ice and Snow Festival’, which draws visitors from all over the world.

How cold does it get? Well urban warming assures that it will never get as chilly as other, smaller settlements with similar positioning, but it’s still fairly unforgiving, with a 24 hour average of -18.4°C. The record low is fairly staggering at -42.6°C, but equally the summers get pretty hot, sometimes getting up past 30°C. Harbin is certainly a city of extremes.

Barrow - U.S.A.

When you get to the more remote regions of the world, the definition of a city becomes a little bit looser. Anywhere else in the world, Barrow would be a mid-sized town, but given the way it utterly dwarves all surrounding urban settlements in northern Alaska, it’s the nearest thing to a city you’ll find. It was a population of just over 4,300, according to the 2013 censure, and is a grid of barren, unpaved streets and low buildings.

The most important thing to bear in mind with Barrow, however, is this: it’s above the Arctic Circle. Only 5.3% of the planet is as far north of the equator as Barrow, and you can bet you won’t find many other pancakes restaurants anywhere else in that margin. Barrow is not only bitterly cold, with average lows of -28.6°C, but also extremely dry, with very low precipitation rates. It’s effectively a desert climate. It’s also a very cloudy, foggy city, with low visibility a common occurrence, especially when the ocean isn’t frozen.

Ulaanbaatar – Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar holds the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world. It contains more than half of Mongolia’s total population – some 1.3 million people. It’s not only cold, but it’s also high, sitting at an elevation of 1,310 metres above sea level. Like many populous settlements in that part of the world, it started out in life as a Buddhist monastery, changing location almost 30 times before eventually developing into an urban settlement and trade point in the mid-18th century.

The lows are low in Ulaanbaatar, dropping to an average of -33°C in January. Centuries of adaption to the cold means that it has a peculiar, fascinating infrastructure, with many people living in yurts which are raised a few inches from the ground. People drive everywhere, and disused cars are repurposed as outdoor meat freezers. Any building work done in the central city has to be done in the summer when the permafrost has thawed.

Yakutsk – Russia

While the regional capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic might not be anywhere near as big as Ulaanbaatar, with a population of just under 300,000, it is regarded as the coldest city of its size anywhere in the world. It’s about 450km south of the Arctic Circle, and has a climate which makes it completely unique as a city, or any other kind of urban population.

Average lows in winter are around -41.5°C and even the daily mean, which takes into account the warmest parts of the day, is still -38.6°C. It gets this cold because there’s almost no temperature moderation; no coast, no treeline. This also, conversely, means that summers can get properly hot. The record high in July is 38.4°C. Most of the year though, it’s an icicle, which presents all sorts of interesting problems. People have to rewarm their mobile phones, and builders actually have to keep the ground permanently frozen so that big buildings don’t melt through it and sink.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.