of the Most Extreme Places on Earth
With a surface area of 196.9 million square miles and a volume of 259.9 billion cubic miles, the planet we call home is full of extremes, whether it comes to temperature, climate, geography, or terrain. Here’s the ultimate look of some of Earth’s greatest superlatives.
Hottest: Lut Desert, Iran
Determining the hottest place on earth can be a, well, fiery subject. The difference comes in the various ways there are to measure temperature. Air temperature is measured out of sunlight with a thermometer three to six feet off the ground, and it’s determined by circulation and humidity. Land Skin Temperature or LST is the heating of the land surface itself, measured scientifically by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer or MODIS satellite. Plus, these temperatures vary and can change from year to year.
NASA set out to do a seven-year study and determined that the consistently hottest place — according to LST, the actual surface temperature, over the course of a year — is the Lut Desert. Also known as Dasht-E Lut, the Iranian desert topped five of those years with an overall high of 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. But in two of the years, runner-ups topped the charts, with Australia’s Queensland badlands coming in at 156.7 degrees Fahrenheit in 2003 and China’s Flaming Mountain with 152.2 degrees Fahrenheit in 2008. But if you choose to go by local legend, Flaming Mountain claims to be the true hot spot, even drawing tourists in with a gigantic golden thermometer.
The highest recorded temperatures on Earth were in California’s Death Valley, reaching 134 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature in 1913 and 201 degrees surface temperature in 1972.
Coldest: East Antarctic Plateau, Antarctica
It’s no surprise that the chilliest spot on the planet is also on the least populated continent of Antarctica. In a joint project between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey analyzing more than three decades of data, the coldest temperature recorded was minus 133.6 degrees Fahrenheit in a ridge between Dome Argus and Dome Fuji called the East Antarctic Plateau, announced in 2013.
Five years later, minus 144 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in the same region on an Antarctic ice sheet. “It’s a place where Earth is so close to its limit, it’s almost like another planet,” scientist Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who worked on both studies, explained.
The coldest inhabited spot is on the other side of the globe in the Siberian towns of Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon in Russia, where it can reach minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Driest: Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Chile’s Atacama Desert is widely known as one of the driest spots on earth where visitors can go — some parts of the region haven’t received rain in more than 500 years.
Yet the most extreme dry spot is actually in Antarctica’s aptly named Dry Valleys — which has had zero rainfall for two million years. Considered to be similar to the terrain on Mars, the valley’s surrounding high mountains prevent ice from coming in. The Katabatic winds, which can reach speeds of more than 100 mph, “are caused by gravity pulling cold, dense air downward, warming and drying as it goes,” meteorologist Tom Skilling told the Chicago Tribune.
Wettest: Mawsynram Village in Meghalaya, India
When it comes to rainfall, the world record goes to the village of Mawsynram in Meghalaya, India, which even had a “Wettest Place on Earth” sign on top of its old weather station. The area set a Guinness World Record with an annual rainfall of 467.3 inches — to put that in perspective, that’s 13 times as much as Seattle’s rainfall and that much water would reach Rio de Janeiro’s Chris the Redeemer’s knees.
Sitting on a plateau in the Khasi Hills, the moisture comes in from the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh’s floodplains. The upside? The constant downpours mean that the area is always lush and full of waterfalls.
Snowiest: Japanese Alps
When the Paradise Ranger Station at Washington State’s Mount Rainier logged an annual snowfall of 1,122 inches (or 93.5 feet) in the 1971-1972 season, it made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for greatest amount of snowfall in a year. But in 1998-1999, neighboring Mount Baker surpassed Rainier with 1,140 inches (or 95 feet) in a single season.
But globally, figuring out the snowiest place can be a bit hazy since measurements vary around the world. National Geographic determined that the Japanese Alps actually receive more annual snowfall — weather historian Christopher Burt estimates they can get up to 1,500 inches (or 125 feet). The mountain range, which runs through the Nagano prefecture near the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, gets cold Siberian air streaming across warm Sea of Japan waters, producing cloud bands that bring snow to the region.
Windiest: Barrow Island, Australia
The highest wind gust ever recorded was on Australia’s Barrow Island, 30 miles off the northwest Pilbara coast. Winds reached a staggering 253 mph during the Tropical Cyclone Olivia on April 10, 1996, according to the World Meteorological Organization. But crowning a place the windiest may depend on how the wind blows.
The longest sustained wind speed, reaching 215 mph, occurred during Typhoon Nancy in 1961 in the Pacific Ocean before hitting Japan. The highest tornadic wind was recorded in Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley, hitting 302 mph on May 3, 1999. And for constant windy conditions, the wind belts of the Southern Ocean cause stormy seas with winds of more than 100 mph, while Antarctica’s Cape Denison holds the record for highest winds at sea level with 95 mph winds on July 6, 1913.
Highest Altitude: Mount Everest, Nepal and Tibet
Rising 29,029 feet into the sky above sea level, the Himalayas’ Mount Everest at the border of Nepal and Tibet is widely known as the highest place on earth — and does indeed have the highest altitude (that is, the measure from sea level to the peak). Previously referred to as Peak XV, it was renamed for the British surveyor general of India George Everest in 1865.
Despite soaring to impressive heights, its high altitude doesn’t mean it’s also the highest mountain. Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, which partially sits below sea level, is the highest when measured from its underwater base, with a total height of over 33,500 feet.
Farthest from Earth’s Center: Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador
Assuming Earth is a perfect sphere, Mount Everest should be the furthest point from the earth’s center too. But a funny little quirk of our planet means that title actually goes to Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. Since the planet is always spinning, the centrifugal force creates a bulge in the earth, which is greatest around the equator.
Its altitude of 20,564 feet above sea level is 8,465 feet less than Mount Everest, but since Chimborazo is just one degree south of the midpoint, it is actually further away from Earth’s core by 6,800 feet. So if the goal is to reach for the stars, the Ecuadorian peak actually provides a boost by several thousand feet.
Deepest: Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean
At a depth of almost seven miles, or 36,201 feet, the Mariana Trench isn’t just the deepest part of the earth’s oceans, but it’s also the deepest point on the planet. The weight of all that water creates so much pressure that it’s 1,000 times higher than that in New York. And if Mount Everest was placed inside the trench, it would still be 7,000 feet below sea level.
The 1,500-mile-long and 43-mile-deep crescent-shaped trench sits about 124 miles east of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands and 200 miles southwest of the U.S. territory of Guam, so the U.S. has jurisdiction over its great depths. It was first discovered in 1875 by the British ship H.M.S. Challenger; the deepest section in the south end is now known as the Challenger Deep.
Flattest: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The massive Lake Minchin covered Bolivia’s high plateau more than 40,000 years ago — and when it dried up, two salt deserts remained, with the larger one becoming Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, a 4,000-square-mile flat covered by 10 billion tons of salt.
Almost as big as the state of Connecticut, the vast nothingness has turned it into a popular Instagram playground, allowing for unusual forced perspectives from the extreme flatness. But it also has a more practical use: Satellites often use the area to calibrate devices — it’s so high, dry, and reflective that it provides a perfect ground zero.
But for a less visible flat zone, venture underwater to the Abyssal Plains, which make up 40 percent of the ocean floor and is quite literally a featureless terrain.
Steepest: Mount Thor, Canada
In Canada’s northernmost province of Nunavut on Baffin Island is Auyuittuq National Park’s Mount Thor, which has Earth’s greatest vertical drop of 4,101 feet with an average angle of 105 degrees. That math adds up to the steepest mountain on the planet — technically steeper than vertical — and it’s also the world’s tallest cliff.
Named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, it would indeed take a superhero to climb it — and a four-person American team accomplished the feat in May 1985 after a 33-day ascent.
Sunniest: Yuma, Arizona
Sunny days sweep the clouds away in Arizona’s southwestern city of Yuma — more than anywhere else in the world. Tallying more than 4,000 hours of sunlight a year and an average of 11 sunny hours a day, Yuma ranked highest on the World Meteorological Association’s sunshine hours index, which is “measured by sensors and count toward the total when the direct solar irradiance surpasses a specific threshold of at least 120 watts per square,” according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Nearby Phoenix came in a close second with 3,872 hours a year, while the bronze medal went to the other side of the globe in Aswan, Egypt.
Cloudiest: Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
At any given time, 67 percent of the planet is covered by clouds — and most of the time, it’s covering Faroe Islands. An 18-island archipelago between Iceland and Scotland, the self-governing nation falls under Denmark’s sovereignty.
Its biggest town and capital, Tórshavn, has a population of 20,500. Located on the southeastern side of Streymoy island, it’s bordered by the 1,138-foot Mount Húsareyn and 1,150-foot Mount Kirkjubøreyn and only gets 840 hours of sunlight a year — that’s an average of 2.4 hours a day.
The closest piece of land to the North Pole is popularly thought to be a … coffee club? Quite literally, it was named Kaffeklubben Island, translating to “coffee club,” after the one in Copenhagen’s geological museum, back in 1912. But as the earth keeps changing, so does the northernmost point.
In 1978, a Danish team found a tiny island named Oodaaq, about 10 miles north of Kaffeklubben, rising above the sea, but it seems to have washed under again. Then in 2003, American explorer Dennis Schmitt waded through chilling Arctic waters for 10 hours and found a four-meter island at latitude 83° 42’ that he had seen from a plane five years prior — indicating it was a permanent piece of land. Understanding that it wasn’t his right to name Greenland’s territory, he simply called it “83-42,” and the name stuck. But as the tides change, so can the discovery of another piece of land.
Southernmost: South Pole
Looking southward, the location of the South Pole is easier to pinpoint, thanks to its position on the 5.5-million-square-mile continent of Antarctica. About 50 to 200 people live at the extreme, working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to support the scientific research there.
The location — at 90 degrees south latitude and the convergence of all lines of longitude — is itself an extreme. The position means the sun only rises once a year at the fall equinox and sets once at the spring one. In the summer, the sun is always above the horizon, providing full days of sun; in the winter, it’s always below, so there are complete days of darkness. But as the earth’s plates keep moving, so does the exact position of the South Pole.
Crowded: Mumbai, India
China is the most populated country with 1.4 billion people. Tokyo is the most populated city with 38.1 million people. But take area into consideration and the most crowded place on the planet is Mumbai, with a population density of 76,790 people per square mile — that’s 14.3 million people in its 187 miles.
Even though the lifestyle means people are packed in everywhere, often causing constant traffic jams and long lines, the city does also drive success. Mumbai is also home to one of the greatest populations of billionaires, including Asia’s wealthiest family, the Ambanis.
Least Crowded: Greenland
With 56,770 residents spread out over 158,475 square miles, Greenland has a population density of only 0.4 people per square mile — and it’s not heading upward any time soon. With a 0.1 percent growth rate from 2015 to 2020, it’s the third slowest increase in population in the world.
That said, 80 percent of the land is covered by glaciers, with the warmest temperatures reaching 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, but regularly being below zero. But it’s no doubt the best place to practice social distancing.
Smallest Country: Vatican City
At only 0.17 square miles, the city-state of Vatican City, sitting within Rome, is the world’s smallest city, as well as the world’s smallest country. With a population of about 800, only half of them are citizens of Vatican City, largely consisting of priests, nuns, cardinals, and Pontifical Swiss Guards. And of course, its most famous resident is the Pontifex himself, Pope Francis.
The number of people inside the city limits exponentially rises during peak tourist season, when up to 30,000 visitors a day can come through to see the Vatican Museums, including Michelango’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel.
Most Remote: Point Nemo
Located more than 1,000 miles on each side from Ducie Island in the north, the Easter Island’s Motu Nui in the northeast and Maher Island to the south, Point Nemo is the furthest place from any other piece of land, also known as the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility.” In fact, if you stand in the spot, the closest humans are actually the ones in the International Space Station, which orbits at a maximum of 258 miles over the earth.
Point Nemo’s name comes from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea character Captain Nemo, meaning “no one” in Latin. But that doesn’t mean the region isn’t used for anything. Decommissioned space vehicles are often left here in what it is called a spacecraft cemetery.
Most Electrifying: Catatumbo River & Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
To really see sparks fly, head to Venezuela at the point where the Catatumbo River enters Lake Maracaibo. Here, lightning occurs up to 300 nights a year, lasting up to nine hours with a rate of 250 lightning flashes per square kilometer — earning its spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. During the peak of the rain season in October, there can be as many as 28 lightning strikes a minute.
The bolts are so bright that they can be seen up to 250 miles away — in fact, colonial sailors were thought to use their light to guide the way.