The Coldest Place on Earth

The coldest temperature ever reliably recorded on the surface of the Earth occurred on July 21, 1983, when a temperature of -128.6° F was recorded at Vostok Station, Antarctica (φ = 78° 27′ 52″ S, λ = 106° 50′ 14″ E, elevation 11,444 ft.). Located at the center of the East Antarctic ice sheet, Vostok Station is prone to extremely cold temperatures given its high elevation and location far inland (~868 miles) from the moderating influence of the ocean. Other contributing factors to the low temperature are the extremely low humidity (water vapor retains heat near the surface) and the high albedo of the snow and ice which reflects much solar radiation back out into space.

Vostok Station is the most isolated of all the established research stations on the Antarctic continent. Only about 30 scientists and engineers reside at Vostok Station during the summer months, but during winter that number dwindles to about 15.

The monthly average temperature at Vostok is as follows: April -84.6°F, May -86.4°F, June -85.5°F, July -88.1°F, August -90.2°F, September -86.8°F, October -70.8°F, November -44.7°F, December -25.2°F, January -25.6°F, February -47.7°F, March -72.2°F. The warmest temperature ever recorded at Vostok was +6.8° F on January 5, 1974.

For the current temperature at several locations within Antarctica, including Vostok, see https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/antarctica [apologies for the display ads, but out of my control]. For a Vostok weather forecast, visit https://www.yr.no/en/forecast/daily-table/2-6620791/Antarctica/Vostok%20Station. Planning a trip soon?

Vostok is a desert, averaging just 0.9 inches of snowfall each year. Does any non-dormant indigenous life exist at Vostok Station? No. Except for the human presence there, on the surface it is lifeless. But, fortuitously, Vostok Station sits above a giant freshwater lake called, appropriately, Lake Vostok, 13,100 feet under the ice. Scientists believe that life exists there, but they want to be very, very careful not to biocontaminate the lake as they begin exploring it in earnest.

It is interesting for us to ponder the possibility that sub-surface life exists on Mars and some of the satellites in the outer solar system. Though far more difficult than Lake Vostok to explore, someday we will.

Incidentally, at higher elevations along the Eastern Antarctica Plateau (specifically, along the ridge between Dome Argus and Dome Fuji), satellite measurements between 2010 and 2013 indicate that even colder surface temperatures than at Vostok Station have been reached, perhaps even as low as -144°F. However, since these are not surface temperature measurements, the current Vostok Station record of -128.6° F still holds as the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth. And with anthropogenic global warming, that record is not likely to be broken anytime soon.

Factino: Did you know that it takes a lot more energy to cool down humid air than to cool down dry air? Air conditioners cool much more efficiently in Arizona and New Mexico than they do in Florida and Louisiana. Moreover, evaporative coolers in desert areas can reduce energy use by 80% or more over refrigerative air conditioning, but they only work well in dry climates.

Non-Aggression, Floodlights, and the Aging Eye

In our ongoing journey back through the archives of the IDA Information Sheets, here are three more that are noteworthy and still relevant.

IDA Information Sheet 161 – April 2000
IDA’s Approach to People About Bad Lighting

Though this information sheet was produced in the year following my tenure as IDA Information Sheet Editor, I am sure this one was penned by David L. Crawford (1931-), co-founder of the International Dark-Sky Association.

In these hyper-polarized times, Crawford’s advice is even more important than it was in April 2000. Not only for how to talk to someone about their bad lighting, but for talking to anyone about any behavior born out of ignorance or the consumption of misinformation.

I have so many fond memories of hearing Dave Crawford, the good-lighting evangelist, speak. If I recall correctly, his father was a minister, so you can see where he began to hone his exquisite powers of persuasion and his always non-confrontational approach. He never talked down to you. Or over you. He was effective. “Avoid confrontation, even in a crisis mode. Be professional, and calm.” And, “It is critical to speak from knowledge and experience, not just emotion.” Words of wisdom. Even in the worst of circumstances.


IDA Information Sheet 158 – October 1999
Shielding Floodlights

Bob Crelin, inventor of the phenomenal GlareBuster (sadly, no longer available), and author of the children’s books There Once Was a Sky Full of Stars and Faces of the Moon, wrote this information sheet. What a pleasure it was working with Bob and I treasured our conversations at IDA meetings in Tucson back in the day. I wonder what he is up to these days?


IDA Information Sheet 156 – August 1999
The Aging Eye – Some Basic Information

Dave Crawford wrote this information sheet, and it contains a wealth of information. Notice how he hits the major points multiple times and yet from a variety of angles. Repetition can help us to learn and internalize what we read.

From my own personal experience with “aging eyes”, I am finding it more difficult to drive at the posted speed limit at night. 5 mph less than the posted speed limit is more comfortable, and safer. I drive a low-profile vehicle with normal halogen headlights. But the many aggressive drivers now with high-profile vehicles (SUVs and pickup trucks—those with suspension lifts are the worst) and blindingly-bright headlights (the likes of which we have never seen before) are making night driving increasingly dangerous for the older driver. And there are many of us.

IDA Information Sheets

I recently received a membership renewal notice from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) quoting Christopher Kyba that if light pollution continues to grow at the rate it currently is, “Orion’s belt will disappear at some point.”

This made me remember that I had written an IDA Information Sheet back in March 1997 that also had addressed how light pollution could erase much of the Orion constellation. I wrote,

Orion, arguably the most prominent of the constellations, begins to look more like “Orion, the Hunted” under a magnitude +4.0 sky. Under a magnitude +3.0 sky, Orion is on his deathbed. When light pollution is so bad that we have a magnitude +2.0 sky, only blazing Betelgeuse, regal Rigel, and Bellatrix and Alnilam remain to regale us.

Speaking of the IDA Information Sheets, I was the IDA Information Sheet Editor from 1996-1999, during which time I revised and edited most of the existing information sheets, edited and added many new ones from a number of contributors, as well as contributed many new ones that I authored, though I never credited myself as the author. One of the ones that I wrote was IDA Information Sheet 120, referenced above (and shown below). I have a complete hard copy set of IDA Information Sheets 1 through 175, the last of which was published in June 2000. I also have WordPerfect Macintosh source files for IDA Information Sheets 1 through 158, the last of which was completed on October 27, 1999.

Here’s IDA Information Sheet 120:

It is a shame that these IDA Information Sheets are no longer available anywhere on the Internet. At the very least, they are of historical interest, and I would say that much of the content is still relevant. Presumably, the IDA still has all of these information sheets, but after the Dave Crawford era, they have decided to remove access to them.

Finally, I want to express my disappointment that the International Dark-Sky Association has recently decided to change their name to DarkSky International. They are still in the process of changing everything over, but once that transition is complete, the IDA will be no more. The break with the Dave Crawford era will be complete. I, for one, will never forget how much Dave Crawford was able to accomplish during those early years, and how proud I was to have been a part of it.

The IDA/DSI is still a great organization, and I strongly encourage you to generously support it, as I do. It remains the most effective organization in the world addressing light pollution and the loss of our night sky and the natural nighttime environment.

Quotable Arthur C. Clarke

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008)

Clarke’s Three Laws

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.


I don’t believe in God but I’m very interested in her.


The rash assertion that “God made man in His own image” is ticking like a time bomb at the foundation of many faiths, and as the hierarchy of the universe is disclosed to us, we may have to recognize this chilling truth: if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.


Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor—but they have few followers now.


I would defend the liberty of consenting adult creationists to practice whatever intellectual perversions they like in the privacy of their own homes; but it is also necessary to protect the young and innocent.


I would like to assure my many Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim friends that I am sincerely happy that the religion which Chance has given you has contributed to your peace of mind (and often, as Western medical science now reluctantly admits, to your physical well-being). Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide whether we have any future.


There is the possibility that humankind can outgrown its infantile tendencies, as I suggested in Childhood’s End. But it is amazing how childishly gullible humans are. There are, for example, so many different religions—each of them claiming to have the truth, each saying that their truths are clearly superior to the truths of others—how can someone possibly take any of them seriously? I mean, that’s insane. Though I sometimes call myself a crypto-Buddhist, Buddhism is not a religion. Of those around at the moment, Islam is the only one that has any appeal to me. But, of course, Islam has been tainted by other influences. The Muslims are behaving like Christians, I’m afraid.


Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.


Perhaps, as some wit remarked, the best proof that there is Intelligent Life in Outer Space is the fact it hasn’t come here. Well, it can’t hide forever—one day we will overhear it.


The fact that we have not yet found the slightest evidence for life—much less intelligence—beyond this Earth does not surprise or disappoint me in the least. Our technology must still be laughably primitive, we may be like jungle savages listening for the throbbing of tom-toms while the ether around them carries more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime.


The moon is the first milestone on the road to the stars.


We are just tenants on this world. We have just been given a new lease, and a warning from the landlord.


Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal.


This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.


As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.


Our age is in many ways unique, full of events and phenomena that never occurred before and can never happen again. They distort our thinking, making us believe that what is true now will be true forever, though perhaps on a larger scale.


It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.


New ideas pass through three periods:

  1. It can’t be done.
  2. It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing.
  3. I knew it was a good idea all along!

Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.


There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.


The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information—in the sense of raw data—is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.


Communication technologies are necessary, but not sufficient, for us humans to get along with each other. This is why we still have many disputes and conflicts in the world. Technology tools help us to gather and disseminate information, but we also need qualities like tolerance and compassion to achieve greater understanding between peoples and nations. I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we’ve learnt something from the most barbaric century in history—the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalisation. [December 2007]

Non-Profit Mail Overload

I receive enough solicitations in the mail from non-profit organizations to fill a 10-ream paper box every couple of months. I don’t think I have ever seen it this bad. I know that needs are great and worthwhile causes many, but giving $25 to an organization supporting cause xyz should not result in a dozen other organizations supporting similar causes mailing me multiple times each year.

There has to be a better way. Catalog companies had to solve this problem decades ago because of the expense of printing and mailing catalogs to existing and prospective customers. You mail your best customers often, those who don’t spend much or purchase infrequently less often, and prospective customers maybe once in a great while.

If the U.S. Postal Service continues to have financial problems, one source of revenue would be to increase the non-profit postage rate, and that would force many non-profit organizations to use a more sophisticated approach for their mailings.

Why not start now? I’d like to see a non-profit organization established whose sole purpose is to help other non-profit organizations to mail donors and prospective donors efficiently. Let’s give it a placeholder name: Nonprofit Mailing Association (NMA). Each participating non-profit organization would confidentially provide their donor lists and contribution history for each donor to NMA, and NMA in turn would use the data received from your organization and other non-profit organizations to rank-order donors based on likelihood to contribute and amount likely to contribute.

In the marketing business, this process is called “modeling”. Each model needs to take into consideration the amount you give (are you a $25 or $500 donor?), the frequency you give (monthly, 2-3 times a year, annually, or every couple of years or so), and to which non-profits. Other behaviors need to be taken into account. Does the donor tend to support organizations that they seek out directly, or are they more likely to respond to prospect mailings?

This modeling will result in fewer mailings but a lower acquisition cost per donor. From a donor standpoint, hopefully this will stop frequent mailings to individuals who have never donated to an organization. Once a year is often enough. Anything more borders on harassment. Besides, is the average person more likely to look at a non-profit mailing if they receive one in the mail on average each day or ten?

This approach should also apply to political organizations.

Using a more sophisticated approach to non-profit mailings will result in lower mailing and printing costs for the non-profit, and less printed material ending up in the recycling stream or—more often—the landfill.

Children One or Zero

I have written about the overpopulation crisis before, but a Population Connection webinar on July 13 by Nandita Bajaj, Executive Director of Population Balance, motivated me to write more. Her presentation, Pronatalism and Rapid Population Growth: Challenging the Social Pressures to Have Children, was excellent and informative. I will post a link to her presentation in a comment as soon as it is available. Even though this article draws upon some of the material Nandita presented, what follows reflects my point of view alone.

The United Nations issued a report this week that announces that the world’s human population will surpass 8 billion people in mid-November 2022. Think about it. Later this year, 8 billion people will be living on this planet. The age of the Earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years, so we have nearly two people currently living and consuming resources for every year this planet has existed. That’s a sobering thought.

Powerful forces of ignorance and misinformation are at work today that prevent us from adequately addressing a number of critical issues that—if we don’t act quickly—will result in a serious decline in the quality of life for most of the human race within the next few years. Chief among these is overpopulation, which is the primary driver of most of the other problems we are facing (climate change, environmental degradation, the decline in biological diversity, conflict over resources, and so on). Rather than feel powerless, or resign ourselves to a dystopian future, or take false solace in an afterlife that doesn’t exist, we must act. That is the only moral choice, and it gives our life meaning. What kind of a world do we want for ourselves and future generations? We must work towards building that world, no matter how difficult or protracted the effort.

As it is, we have commodified every possible part of the natural world to meet our insatiable needs. What could possibly go wrong?

The rapid increase in human population during the past couple of centuries is not normal. The Earth’s resources can sustain a world population of around 3 billion indefinitely, but we exceeded that limit in 1960. Since then, we have been living on borrowed time, all of us. And the debt is coming due. Techno-optimism isn’t going to save us.

The only humane way to get us back to 3 billion people is to reduce the birth rate. Having one child or none at all has to become the new normal. But the many facets of pronatalism are getting in the way of that.

Pronatalism is the idea that having children is both expected and a purely personal act.

Having children should never be incentivized . Many of us are ill-suited to be parents, and certainly living a deeply fulfilling life of great value to society does not depend upon bringing children into the world or child-rearing. And for those of us who do want children and are likely to be good parents, why not have one child, and no more?

Every child should be wanted, and born into a nurturing environment. Did you know we spend more money on imprisonment than we do on education in the U.S.? The right to contraception (including permanent contraception) and, yes, abortion are deeply personal human rights that must not be taken away by anyone. The idea that an embryo or fetus is somehow equivalent to a fully-formed human being is the opposite of rational: it is irrational. Many who oppose abortion do so for religious reasons. And such irrational considerations have no place in law or governance. Unfortunately, for many, religion is a “gateway drug” that predisposes one to holding other beliefs and opinions that are not supported by a shred of evidence. This is dangerous in the extreme.

The idea that having children is a purely personal act is also wrong. If you have more than two children, then you are directly contributing to unsustainable population growth and a certain increase in human suffering due to that growth. We talk the big talk about “personal freedoms” in this country, but almost never about “societal responsibilities” that must put limits on those freedoms. Freedom without responsibility is selfishness, plain and simple.

There are a number of pronatalism pressures that must be effectively countered. These include cultural pressures (e.g. “when are you going to get married and have children?”), religious pressures (e.g. more followers, “believers” vs. “non-believers”), economy-driven pressures (e.g. more consumers and workers), and political pressures (e.g. more taxpayers, more soldiers to fight in our endless wars).

“Baby-bust alarmism” is often in the news, and must be countered wherever it occurs.

And then there’s “great replacement theory”, which is the idea that “our” people are soon going to be outnumbered by other, less desirable, people. There’s an inherent racism in this idea. Often, people who sound the “underpopulation alarm” are really talking about underpopulation of white people.

We certainly have our work cut out for us, but we don’t have to change the minds and hearts of everyone to save humanity and our natural world. We only need to reach a critical mass of enlightened individuals to effect real and lasting change. And that may be a lot fewer than you think.

The greatest legacy we can leave our children is fewer children.

A Planetary Crisis

On my recent Amtrak trip between Tucson, AZ and Alpine, TX, I caught up on some reading. The highlight of that reading was an article by Alexandra Witze entitled “A Planetary Crisis” in the March 12, 2022 issue of Science News (pp. 16-24). This is absolutely the best article I have ever read about the history of our scientific knowledge on the topic of human-induced climate change.

You can read the print edition of this article, or the version online.

One important point to call out. The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has been continuously monitoring atmospheric CO2 levels since March 1958, and the annual mean CO2 level has increased 31.8% between 1959 and 2021.

1959315.98 ± 0.12 ppm
2021416.45 ± 0.12 ppm
Annual Mean CO2 at Mauna Loa expressed as a mole fraction of dry air
(micromol/mol = parts per million = ppm)

And, most recently,

May 2021419.13 ppm
May 2022420.99 ppm

Alarmingly, the rate of increase is not linear.

We know that carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas. And, as Witze’s article explains, that fact has been known since 1856.

One thing is crystal clear. Human activity (mostly the burning of fossil fuels) is causing the increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and that is causing our planet to warm. We need to quickly and substantially reduce the amount of CO2 we are dumping into the atmosphere—or risk catastrophic consequences. I’m trying to do my part. We just installed rooftop solar panels that should generate most or all of the electricity we consume, including that required to power an electric car. As soon as I can get one (this fall?), I will be trading in my gasoline-powered car for an electric one.


By the way, I’ve been a subscriber to Science News for the past 50 years, and in my opinion there is no better newsmagazine covering all areas of science. If you aren’t already a subscriber, please consider becoming one.

Ending Spring Forward, Fall Back

On March 15, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to end the twice annual switch between Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time. So far so good. That leaves us now with two choices: standard time year round or daylight saving time year round. Unfortunately, they have chosen the latter. The fact that there was no debate on this point suggests the esteemed senators collectively have little understanding of science—or, at least, biology and astronomy.

Most astronomers (those that actually observe) and astronomy educators don’t like daylight saving time because it delays the onset of darkness by an hour: most of us observe in the evening and not right before dawn. Cruelly, daylight saving time prevents many young people from experiencing the wonders of the night sky because it gets dark around or after their bedtime during the warmer months of the year.

Non-astronomers (which, let’s face it, includes most of us) that rise early in the morning will spend even more of their year getting up while it is still dark out. In the northern U.S. at least that means that during the winter months, many school children will be going to school in the dark when it is still bitterly cold.

I have written previously on this topic.

As for biology, unless all of us also start our work days and school days an hour later, year-round daylight saving time will further mess with our already-damaged circadian rhythms—and most of us don’t get enough sleep as it is. As many studies have shown, this leads to a number of negative consequences affecting our health and well being.

The answer is, of course, to adopt standard time year-round as Arizona currently does. Even that is now in jeopardy as Arizona is likely to join the bandwagon and go to permanent daylight saving time, if this legislation is enacted.

This legislation now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives and, if it passes there, on to President Biden’s desk to sign into law. If that happens, most/all? of the U.S. will be going to permanent daylight saving time beginning officially November 5, 2023 (actually, March 12, 2023).

Is anyone pushing for year-round standard time instead? You bet.

I encourage you to support this organization, Save Standard Time, a registered 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization.

Reinventing the Global Economy

I watched a new thought-provoking documentary last night, Going Circular, about the need to reinvent our local and global economic systems to eliminate waste and save our planet’s resources.

Mother Nature has had a 4-billion-year head start in figuring out how to build a sustainable ecosystem where nothing is wasted and we have much to learn from her.

Little or nothing should be going into the landfill. As much as possible should be recycled, reused, and repurposed. Everything possible should be manufactured so that it can be repaired and upgraded, rather than thrown away and replaced with something completely new.

This is especially important considering that world population is nearing 8 billion and much of the world is rapidly adopting the wasteful lifestyle of the United States and other developed nations. We need to rapidly pivot to a more sustainable economic system or risk catastrophic damage to the global ecosystem and unimaginable human suffering. With so many people, we face the very real possibility of trashing the world’s environment in a single generation.

I don’t know how you accomplish the needed changes fast enough without strong and competent involvement and regulation by the world’s governments. Sure, we can have reasoned debates about the exact roles that governments will play, but all parties should be onboard with the common goal that tax money should be spent wisely and that government should run efficiently. This is no time for “small government” but it is time for better government.

Excessive military spending across the world is tying up valuable resources that could be used to help transform our economies and save the planet. The United States is one of the worst offenders. “With an annual defense budget of $733 billion, the U.S. spends more than three times what China does and 12 times as much as Russia.”1

To end this short article on a hopeful note, think how satisfying it would be both personally and collectively if much of our labor force had jobs directly involved with reducing waste, reusing materials, producing products that last as long as possible, and repairing and upgrading products rather than seeing them thrown away.

Watch the film, please. Though Going Circular is currently only available through Curiosity Stream, which is a subscription service, hopefully it will be more generally available soon. I’d like to see this documentary aired on PBS.

1The Week, November 19, 2021, p. 13

The Day After

Last night I watched a movie that somehow I missed when it was broadcast on ABC on November 20, 1983. It is the most compelling dramatization I have seen of why we need to rid the world of all nuclear weapons. Frankly, this movie is terrifying, but as stated at the end, a real nuclear war would be far, far worse. This movie ought to be required viewing for every American over the age of 12. Though the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union is no more, and the two Germanys reunited, the threat of nuclear warfare is just as relevant today. In fact, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is closer to midnight now than it ever has been—even during the height of the Cold War.

There are a number of organizations dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, among them the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 and 1985, respectively. I encourage you to donate regularly to both of these organizations as I do.

What else can we do? Here in the United States, we must reject and oppose tribalism at every opportunity. Our political system is dysfunctional, both in practice as well as structurally, and it needs to be dramatically reformed. Our politicians are completely unable to address the many existential crises currently facing our nation and the world, and most citizens feel powerless—or worse yet—dispirited, apathetic, or willfully ignorant. At the same time, we must root out lies and misinformation, and rely upon facts and hard-earned expertise.

Globally, we must work toward establishing a global “supergovernment” that enacts and enforces binding international laws that are in the best interest of all the world’s peoples. Individual nations will have to give up some sovereignty in order to effectively address global threats such as nuclear weapons, warfare, human rights violations, pandemics, climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, and loss of biodiversity. Whether the United Nations can be strengthened to serve in this role or a new organization created will need to be explored.

The Day After is available through Netflix and Amazon.