All stories of Santa Claus and his cheery toy-making elves aside, the North Pole is a brutally cold, inhospitable place that has claimed the lives of countless explorers who attempted to venture there.
Winter temperatures at the North Pole can range from about -45° F to -15° F, with the average temperature coming in at -30° F. The average summertime temperature is a balmy 32° F, warm enough for its famed ice floes to begin melting (salt water has a lower freezing temperature than fresh water, causing it to melt at or below freezing).
As punishing as those temperatures may be, though, the North Pole actually has nothing on its southern counterpart at the other end of the globe. With an average winter temperature of -79° F, the South Pole is a great deal colder than the North Pole. The record low temperature at the South Pole is âˆ’117° F, recorded on June 23, 1982, while the record high is only 7.5° F. In general, temperatures at the South Pole average 30° lower than the North Pole.
So why is the Southern tip of the Earth so much colder than the Northern tip? The answer lies in the geography of each location. While the North Pole is, by definition, located at sea level — there is no solid land at the North Pole, only a series of icy formations in winter — the South Pole sits 9,000 feet above sea level. Higher elevations are colder than locations at low altitudes, because seawater acts as an insulator, holding in heat from the sun and warming the air around it. Because the North Pole is nothing but seawater, it is able to retain heat more efficiently than the high-and-dry South Pole.
What may be surprising, though, is that the coldest place on Earth isn’t found at either of the poles. The coldest temperature ever recorded, anywhere on the planet, was -128.5° F at Vostok, Antarctica, on July 21st, 1983. Vostok is a Russian Research Station about 800 miles from the geographic South Pole. Located 11,444 feet above sea level, Vostok is higher than the South Pole, and colder on average, at -67.4° F, than the South Pole’s annual average of -56.4° F.