Coldest start to winter in decades for Russia: Parts of Siberia are enduring extreme cold below minus-70 degrees

A major cold snap has hit eastern Russia in recent days
A major cold snap has hit eastern Russia in recent days

As the icebox of the Northern Hemisphere, Russia’s Siberia is notorious for its frigid weather. But the cold so far this December — the most severe in decades in some areas — is extreme even by its own bone-chilling standards.

Temperatures around minus-58 degrees (minus-50 Celsius) and even lower have spread over northeastern Siberia in recent days and will persist for several more. The mercury has dipped as low as minus-73.7 degrees (minus-58.7 Celsius) thus far.

Most of Russia is predicted to endure temperatures much below average through the next week. The coldest conditions relative to normal will tend to drift toward the central and western parts of the country with daily temperature some 20 to 40 degrees below average.

The punishing chill in Siberia is a massive departure from abnormally warm weather prevailing over much of the rest of the planet. The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Service announced Wednesday that last month was the warmest November ever observed by a wide margin and the sixth month in a row to set a record high. This year is a virtual lock to be the planet’s warmest on record.

Climate scientists still expect bouts of extreme cold in a warming world, but they are projected to become less frequent and intense, while covering smaller areas, over time.

Light poles in Plesetsk (Arkhangelsk region, December 2023).Photo: Arina Rasputina
Light poles in Plesetsk (Arkhangelsk region, December 2023).
Photo: Arina Rasputina

December chill

The extreme cold gripping Siberia displaced abnormally warm weather which had previously covered a large swath of Asia. It first arrived in Siberia’s east, in the Sakha Republic, to start this month.

Ozero Iema, in the heart of that region and about 3,000 miles east of Moscow, reached minus-72.4 degrees (minus-58 Celsius) on Dec. 4 and minus-73.7 degrees (minus-58.7 Celsius) on Dec. 5. Both were calendar day records, with the latter being the lowest December temperature in 40 years, according to weather historian Thierry Goose.

Low temperatures in the remote area have been near or below minus-58 degrees since December began. On Dec. 4 and 5, the maximum temperatures were minus-68.1 degrees (minus-55.6 Celsius) and minus-60.5 degrees (minus-51.4 Celsius), respectively.

Ozero Iema has plenty of company. In recent mornings, temperatures have fallen to minus-58 degrees or lower over about 1,200 miles of Siberia to the north and northwest of the Sea of Okhotsk which lies to the east of Russia and north of Japan.

Some other particularly cold spots have included Agayakan in the Sakha Republic, where it fell to minus-70.6 degrees (minus-57 Celsius) Wednesday morning and Susuman, about 200 miles to the southeast, which hit minus-66.8 degrees (minus-54.9 Celsius).

“It is cold,” Pyotr, a resident of Yakutsk, Sakha’s capital city, told Reuters. “You need to just have the right quality clothes and then everything will be okay. The main thing is to keep moving so your blood circulates.”

The planet’s coldest air compared to normal will continue to maintain a tight hold on Russia.

At present, the cold stretches from Scandinavia across nearly the entirety of Russia, which spans about 5,500 miles from west to east. Later this week, the most severe cold will drift to the south and east, spilling into Kazakhstan and Mongolia while still centered on Russia.

There will be nothing to dislodge the cold until at least the early or middle part of next week. In some places, it will turn even colder before that.

In several areas, temperatures will be about 35 degrees below average through Thursday. By Friday, a large zone near and east of the Ural Mountains will experience negative of anomalies of 40 degrees below normal. This equates to highs of minus-5 to minus-25 degrees in the mildest areas and lows still frequently between minus-58 and minus-76 degrees in the coldest spots.

Does it matter?

Russia’s cold is connected to the strongly negative phase of the climate pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation. When it is negative, the coldest air in the Northern Hemisphere is typically displaced south of the polar region.

While Siberia is in the deep freeze, much of the Arctic region to its north is experiencing much above average temperatures.

In about a week, the Arctic Oscillation is forecast to return to its neutral phase, which should allow the cold over Siberia to ease somewhat.

Some research has shown that unusual cold and snowy weather Siberia can eventually lead to a significant chill in North America. Right now, however, there is little sign of that happening.

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