Think that's cold? Have a listen to Francine Stock's 90 minute radio documentary about the Frost Fairs held on the Thames when it froze over. The first was in 1608, the last in 1814. The Thames has frozen over completely about twenty-five times in the past thousand years. A half to two thirds of those freezes happened in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the "Little Ice Age", when ice from the Arctic crept as far south as the northern isles of Scotland, and polar bears jumped off ice floes and terrorized the crofters. In 1740 it was so cold in London that trees cracked apart "with the sound of artillery fire".
But don't let the soothing sounds played by Norwegian musician Terje Isungset on thousand-year-old glacier ice lull you into a false sense of security. Nothing that happens in Britain is really cold. For real cold we have to go to Siberia.
Britain's Little Ice Age would be considered a summer holiday in Yakutsk, the world's coldest city, where it's currently minus 38 centigrade, with light snow, 67% humidity, and overcast skies. A journalist from The Independent went to Yakutsk last winter. At first, the minus 40 cold didn't feel too bad. Then he stepped out of his hotel:
"The first place to suffer is the exposed skin on my face, which begins to sting, and then experience shooting pains, before going numb, which is apparently dangerous, because it means blood flow to the skin has stopped. Then the cold penetrates the double layer of gloves and sets to work on chilling my fingers. The woolly hat and padded hood are no match for minus 43C either, and my ears begin to sting. Next to succumb are the legs. Finally, I find myself with severe pain all across my body and have to return indoors. I look at my watch. I have been outside for 13 minutes."
Here's what happens to your hands at that kind of temperature:
In fact, if you're heading to Siberia, you might want to bear in mind this little chart:
Up to minus 40C it's absolutely fine (according to the Siberians).
At minus 50C diesel fuel freezes. (Bear in mind that if your car engine stops, you may well die.)
When it gets past minus 52C they close the schools.
At about minus 60C it becomes difficult to breathe.
At minus 65C birds die of cold in mid-flight.
Minus 71C is the minimum temperature recorded in Oymyakon.
Ah yes, Oymyakon. If you think Yakutsk is cold, do what this Sky News reporter did. Travel east from Yakutsk for three days (800 kilometers) and, a few hundred miles south of the Arctic circle, you'll reach Oymyakon:
People in Oymyakon eat only reindeer meat and horsemeat, no vegetables. They wear only fur -- artificial fabrics are no good at all.
I won't say I've been to Oymyakon, but every time I fly from Europe to Japan I see places in the vicinity from 30,000 feet up in the air. I always wonder how there can be a squeeze on space on the planet when there's all that empty territory down there in Siberia. I suppose the Oymyakons share my puzzlement. Minus 40? That's nothing.