A bit nippy

The low temperature record has just been awarded to a spot near Dome A in the heart of the Antarctic desert. At -93.2C it beats the previous record of -89.2C, which was measured in 1983 at the Russian Vostok base on the same continent.

To help one appreciate such low air temperatures, I can offer my personal experience of winter life in the far north of Fenno-Scandinavia. My own low temperature record is -53C, which I experienced over a decade ago whilst working as a space scientist with a particular interest in ground-based studies of the aurora borealis.

On that day, I and two colleagues had to drive from east to west across Nordkalotten from Sodankylä in Finnish Lapland to Tromsø on the Norwegian coast. In our Landcruiser we carried all we could in the way of survival equipment, but a breakdown in the middle of this Arctic desert could have been very serious indeed.

Diesel oil has a tendency to wax or gel at very low temperatures, clogging up fuel pipes. There are various commercial additives available for use in cold weather, but the tried and tested way around the problem of freezing diesel is to add a small amount of petrol to the tank. This will lower the freezing point of the fuel mix, but at temperatures lower than -30C you cannot afford to let the engine stop, even for a few minutes.

At -53C, the mood in the car was a little tense, to say the least. We made it to balmy Tromsø safe and sound, but the experience gave this physicist a whole new appreciation of thermodynamics.