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."

Journey to the Monarch Mosh Pit

iStock/Spondylolithesis
iStock/Spondylolithesis

Each fall, millions of migrating monarchs return to Mexico to wait out winter. The gathering makes Woodstock look like a business conference. Here’s how they get there.

Mosh Pit

In the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies crowd on the branches of oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a perfect microclimate that prevents the butterflies from getting too hot or cold.

Texas Toast

After winter, the butterflies fly north to Texas in search of milkweed, where they lay their eggs. Many adults will die here; northbound monarchs generally live only three to seven weeks.

Juice Cleanse

One of the reasons monarchs love milkweed? Protection. As caterpillars, they absorb the toxins in the plant, which makes them less tasty to birds.

Connecting Flight

Eventually, a new generation of butterflies will make its way north to Canada. It takes multiple generations of butterflies to reach their final, most northerly destination.

Dine and Dash

On the way, butterflies will eat practically anything. Sure, there’s nectar—but they’ll also slurp the salts in mud.

Catching Air

When fall returns, a new generation of monarchs rides the air currents more than 3000 miles back to Mexico. They navigate by calibrating their body clocks with the position of the sun. (An internal magnetic compass helps them navigate on cloudy days.)

Latitude Adjustment

Monarchs “are one of the few creatures on Earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude,” The New York Times reports—a feat sailors wouldn’t accomplish until the 1700s.

Southern Charm

Miraculously, each generation of southbound monarchs lives up to eight months—six times longer than their northbound descendants. Their longevity might have something to do with a process known as reproductive diapause (which is a fancy way of saying that the insects won’t breed until winter ends).

9 Abandoned Islands Reclaimed by Nature

Hashima Island in Japan
Hashima Island in Japan
FROSTEYe, iStock via Getty Images

There’s something especially atmospheric about an island left abandoned. The ruined buildings, overrun by animals and climbing plants, hint at dark stories and forgotten chapters in the island’s past. Below are nine (mostly) abandoned islands that have been reclaimed by nature, and the stories behind them.

1. Ilha da Queimada Grande // Brazil

A golden lancehead viper
A golden lancehead viper
Nayeryouakim, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Ilha da Queimada Grande is a beautiful, wild island 90 miles off the coast of São Paolo, Brazil. But this island is no paradise—it's home to between 2000 and 4000 golden lancehead vipers, one of the world's deadliest snakes. The island was cut off from the mainland 11,000 years ago when sea levels rose, and with no known predators on the ground, the snakes evolved into their own species of pit viper. The golden lancehead vipers have also taken over the entire island: Rumor has it that the only family who ever lived there (they moved to the island to run the lighthouse) all died after being bitten by the snakes. Today, travel to the island is tightly controlled, but whether this is to protect people from the deadly snakes, or to protect the critically endangered snakes from people, isn't entirely clear. Whatever the reason, this island is one that looks set to stay abandoned.

2. Hashima Island // Japan

Ruins in Hashima Island, Japan
Ruins in Hashima Island, Japan
FROSTEYe, iStock via Getty Images

In the 1950s, the 16-acre Hashima Island—also known as Battleship Island—was almost completely covered in high-rise apartments by the Mitsubishi Corporation, built in order to house the thousands of people who worked in the undersea mine beneath the island. But once the mines closed in 1974 the island was left to ruin, and the place now makes for an eerie modern ghost town. Its haunting atmosphere was put to good use in 2012 when it was used in the Bond film Skyfall as the villain’s lair. In 2015, in light of its importance to industrial history, the island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list—a decision that involved some controversy, given that some of those who worked on the island were forced laborers from Korea.

3. Pollepel Island // New York

Bannerman Island Castle, Pollepel Island, New York
Bannerman Island Castle, Pollepel Island, New York
karenfoleyphotography, iStock via Getty Images

Pollepel Island (also often called Bannerman Island) is a 6.5-acre island in New York's Hudson River. The island was purchased in 1900 by entrepreneur Francis Bannerman as a place to store his excess stock of military surplus items. Bannerman designed an eccentric Scottish-style castle to house his wares, but construction on the building ceased in 1918 after his death. In 1920, 200 pounds of shells and gunpowder exploded in an accident, destroying part of the castle. After the ferry serving the island sank in 1950, the island and its ruined castle became effectively abandoned. New York State purchased Pollepel Island in 1967, but another fire two years later left the castle dangerously unstable, and since 1968 it has been off-limits to the public unless you're on a guided tour.

4. King Island // Alaska

An abandoned village in King Island, Alaska
An abandoned village in King Island, Alaska
Ansgar Walk, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

King Island sits in the Bering Sea, some 40 miles from Cape Douglas, Alaska. At first glance it seems impossible that anyone could have ever called this steep, rocky outcrop home, and yet for a number of years, an indigenous community of Inupiat lived in wooden huts on stilts built onto the cliff face. The village, known as Ukivok, was home to up to 200 people who spent their days hunting seal and walrus. But after the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the local school in 1959, the community began to diminish, until by 1970 it was completely abandoned. Amazingly, the wooden huts can still be seen, clinging on to the rocky cliffs, long out-lasting their former inhabitants.

5. Okunoshima Island // Japan

Wild rabbits on Japan's rabbit island, Okunoshima
Wild rabbits on Japan's rabbit island, Okunoshima
grassflowerhead, iStock via Getty Images

This tiny island in Japan was once used to manufacture and test poisonous gases, but it was deserted after World War II. Rabbits introduced to the island (possibly as test subjects for the poison gas) have, well, bred like rabbits, and now the island is home to thousands of the furry creatures. The plethora of cute rabbits have caused the island to become a popular tourist attraction, and people now flock to this once-deadly location to get their fill of fluffy bunnies. For those of a more macabre bent, the island also now features a small museum on poison gas.

6. Poveglia // Italy

Ruins on the island of Poveglia, Italy
Ruins on the island of Poveglia, Italy
Angelo Meneghini, Wikimedia // CC BY 3.0

This island is known as one of the most supposedly haunted abandoned islands in the world, and with good reason. Found in the Venetian Lagoon, Poveglia was once used to quarantine those afflicted with the plague. As a result, thousands of people lived out their last, miserable moments there and the island’s soil is rumored to be filled with human remains. A mental hospital was also built there in 1922. Poveglia has been abandoned since 1968, and the old hospital buildings reclaimed by nature, with a pervading atmosphere of death, madness, and misery still hanging heavy over the island.

7. Clipperton Island // Pacific Ocean

Remote Clipperton Island is about 1300 miles off the southwest coast of Mexico. Over the years, the United States, Mexico, France, and England all attempted to stake a claim on the island to mine the valuable guano there for use as fertilizer—but Clipperton's remote location and inhospitable, rocky coast made it difficult to access. As a result, by the 1910s the island was inhabited by just 26 people. The small settlement was soon forgotten, and supply ships no longer stopped there. With only fish, birds, and coconuts to eat, the islanders began to die, until only a reclusive lighthouse keeper, several women, and their children remained. Then things got even worse: The lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez, pronounced himself "king." For the next two years, he ruled over the island, terrorizing and enslaving the women and children. His reign was brought to an end in 1917 when one of his victims murdered him. Soon after, an American ship rescued the emaciated women and children, returning them to their families in Mexico, and leaving the island and its terrible history forgotten.

8. Hirta Island // Scotland

St Kilda, Scotland
St Kilda, Scotland
RobertKelly1972, iStock via Getty Images

Hirta is part of the St Kilda chain of islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The island is so remote it can take 18 hours by boat to reach its sole accessible bay, but rough seas and harsh weather often leave the island cut off. Archaeological evidence suggests people lived on the island beginning in prehistoric times, eking out an existence by hunting the many seabirds that call the island home. In 1930, the last residents asked to be sent to the mainland, because the inhospitable terrain, relentless bad weather, and lack of food made living there too hard. The island is now owned by the Scottish National Trust; in the summer months it temporarily houses scientists and volunteers, who study the puffins and gannets that now thrive there.

9. Ross Island // India

A Presbyterian Church on Ross Island
A Presbyterian Church on Ross Island
ePhotocorp, iStock via Getty Images

Ross Island (officially renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018) is one of the 572 remote Andaman and and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. In the 19th century, the white sand idyll was colonized by the British, who built houses, a church, a ballroom, and a penal colony there to house Indian mutineers. During World War II, the Andaman Islands were taken over by the Japanese, and the British fled after releasing all prisoners. After the war, the island was left abandoned and the jungle has slowly reclaimed the grand Victorian buildings. In 1979, it was officially handed over to the Indian Navy.

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