Inside the Coldest City in the World, Where It Snows 270 Days a Year

iStock.com/Alexander Mozgovets
iStock.com/Alexander Mozgovets

In much of the Northern Hemisphere right now, it’s getting colder and darker and the winter blues are setting in. But few places get it quite as bad as Norilsk, Russia, where residents won’t see a sunrise until mid-January. Worse yet, it's arguably the coldest city in the world.

One of two Siberian cities built in the continuous permafrost zone, during the winter, the city of more than 175,000 people can see cold snaps as brutally low as -78°F. Overall, Norilsk boasts a yearlong average temperature of just 14°F. (Some will argue that the Siberian city of Yakutsk is colder, but that depends on how you want to slice it: Yakutsk is indisputably chillier in the winter—an average temperature of -42°F in January!—but it has much hotter summers and so, when measured by its yearly average, is warmer overall.)

Then there's the snow. Norilsk “is covered with snow for about 270 days a year,” Vincze Miklós writes for io9, “and the inhabitants must deal with snowstorms one day out of every three.”

It's also incredibly isolated. Of all the cities in the world with populations of 100,000 people or more, Norilsk is the farthest north. Despite its relatively large size, no roads lead to it. The city, located 1800 miles from Moscow, sits 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and can only be reached by plane or boat. Surrounded by thousands of miles of untouched wilderness, Norilsk is so cut off from the rest of the world that residents often refer to the rest of Russia as “the mainland.”

The city, we should stress, is on the mainland.

Despite it all, Norilsk is a relatively buzzing place. The city has public transportation, bars, cafes, churches, art galleries, a large theater, and plenty of modern amenities. And new people keep moving in.

The reason? Money.

Norilsk sits on one of the world’s biggest nickel, platinum, and palladium deposits, making it, according to the New York Times, Russia's richest city.

For much of the 20th century, those precious metals were mined by more than 600,000 prisoners detained in a nearby gulag. Today, the gulag is gone, and the people who work for the mines are paid rather handsomely for their work. With palladium selling for over $1000 an ounce, the metals extracted and smelted in the area—largely by one company, Norilsk Nickel—account for a whopping 2 percent of Russia’s entire GDP.

But there is a price to pay to live in Norilsk, and it has nothing to do with the cold. Mining has also made the city one of the most polluted places on the planet. According to National Geographic, “The amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is so high that vegetation in an almost 20-mile radius has died, and residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to high toxicity.” (That's a big deal, given that mushroom-hunting is one of Russia’s most beloved national pastimes.) Recently, mining activity caused the nearby Daldykan river to turn blood red. According to the Times, “At one point, the company belched more sulfur dioxide a year than all of France.”

Most residents are aware of the possible health consequences but don’t raise much of a fuss. "Norilsk Nickel feels like it owns the whole territory here," a citizen tells Victoria Fiore in her short documentary My Deadly Beautiful City, "so [people] are afraid to speak out against it." Their livelihood, after all, depends on the mine's success.

And besides, many people in Norilsk—a significant number of whom are descended from the prison laborers who helped build everything in this city—feel deeply connected to the isolated landscape they call home.

"It's beautiful and eternal," one man tells Fiore. "This is where I like to be."

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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The Trailblazing Story of Alexandrine Tinné, the Victorian Explorer Who Attempted to Cross the Sahara Desert

Alexandrine Tinné was an avid explorer.
Alexandrine Tinné was an avid explorer.
Haags Historisch Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A well-chaperoned Grand Tour of Europe offered wealthy Victorian women a way to safely admire civilization’s wonders, but such travel held little interest for Dutch heiress Alexine Tinné. Having studied books on geography, archaeology, and botany at the Royal Library in the Hague, Tinné longed to explore uncharted regions. Her travels would bring her along the White Nile and later, deep within the Sahara Desert.

An Escape From Victorian Life

Alexandrine Tinné, circa 1855–1860.Robert Jefferson Bingham, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the mid-19th century, exploration was considered a gentleman’s pursuit. The Royal Geographic Society had never financed an expedition led by a woman (and wouldn't until 1904). But Tinné didn't need anyone to authorize or fund her trip, having inherited a fortune when she was 9 years old after the death of her father, Philip Frederik Tinné, a wealthy Anglo-Dutch sugar merchant and shipbuilder [PDF]. She could afford to travel in luxury with her mother, Baroness Henriette van Capellen, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophie of Württemberg. When Tinné was 19, she and her mother traveled Europe and Scandinavia before heading to Egypt to enjoy pleasure cruises on the Nile.

According to Mylinka Kilgore Cardona, a history professor at Texas A&M University who is reworking her dissertation The Six Lives Of Alexine Tinné [PDF] into a book, Tinné’s travels offered a chance to escape the narrow confines of Victorian life. “She got to be her authentic self when she was outside of Europe,” Cardona tells Mental Floss. “She got rid of the corsetry and the crinolines and dressed like a local, albeit a wealthy local. Had she gone back to Europe she would have most likely been forced back into those expectations and highly encouraged to marry.”

Eventful Expeditions

Tinné was so intrigued by Africa, she launched an 1863 expedition to what is now Sudan to discover the source of the Nile, something European explorers had sought since Roman times. Ornithologist Theodor von Heugelin and botanist Hermann Steudner joined Tinné’s 1863 expedition, which required a flotilla of boats to ferry her entourage of soldiers, maids, porters, and clerks, as well as the required camels and donkeys. Tinné’s five dogs, carried in panniers by porters, also accompanied the group.

Though she didn't find the source of the Nile, her adventures were still fruitful. Tinné documented her travels along the region’s waterways and settlements, compiling photographs and drawings now housed in museums. The plants she collected and pressed became the basis for Plantae Tinneanae, a book on the botany of Bahr el-Ghazal, and her letters, sent home by dispatch, described experiences that included traders promising to proclaim her Queen of the Sudan and receiving a marriage proposal from a sultan. 

To a niece, Tinné wrote of her intention to travel beyond Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan. “When you look at the map you will see there is at the SouthWest of the Equator, a large space empty of names, it’s there we want to go to.”

Accounts of her travels not only thrilled newspaper readers of the day, but also were presented at The Royal Geographic Society. Yet some critics called Tinné a dilettante and claimed women were ill-suited to risky endeavors. “Exploration was this very macho masculine thing in the 19th century,” Cardona says. “To be out exploring and facing your fears. Then you have this 20-something-year-old woman doing it. How manly can it be if she is doing it too?”

Troubled Travels

Alexandrine Tinné's travels were far from solitary.Die Gartenlaube, 1869, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tinné’s excursions were far from a leisurely holiday. Her entourage grew as she traveled, straining their resources. When food supplies ran low, her soldiers threatened to mutiny. In self-taught Arabic, the heiress persuaded them to continue, but she soon had to reverse course: While in Bahr el Ghazal, several members of her expedition became severely ill. Tinné and von Heugelin survived, but her mother, Steudner, and two maids died.

Tinné returned to Khartoum, where Adriana van Cappellen, an aunt who had previously left the expedition, had remained. Only weeks after Tinné arrived in Khartoum, Van Cappellen died unexpectedly. Despite suffering yet another devastating loss, the young explorer chose not to return to the Hague. “And now you will probably ask yourself what I am going to do,” she wrote to her niece. “And I don’t think you will be very astonished when I tell you I am going to stay in the East.”

For the next four years, Tinné lived in Alexandria, Tunis, and Tripoli, sailing the Mediterranean, but still longing to explore uncharted regions. In late 1868, she launched another expedition, aiming to be the first European woman to cross the Sahara. It would be her last.

The expedition began in Tripoli, but ended before ever leaving the country. In August 1869, at the age of 33, Tinné was killed during a fight between her camel drivers and guides while traveling between Murzuq and Ghat [PDF]. She knew the dangers inherent in exploration, at one point expressing her preference for an interesting life: “If you hear today or tomorrow that I have been sent to the other world, then don’t think my last moments were lived in bitterness.”