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.