The second coldest capital city in the world is in the grip of a cold snap, and as you might expect, it’s very cold!
The coldest capital in the world is Ulaanbataar in Mongolia, where the typical January day would expect a high temperature of minus 14C. The second coldest used to be Moscow in Russia, until the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided to move the capital of his country from Almaty to a remote location called Akmola, which he renamed Astana.
The official reason for the relocation was that the former capital was in an earthquake zone. Unofficially, however, it’s believed it was done for strategic reasons. Almaty, the former capital, is in the south of the country, as are the majority of the other major cities. There are virtually no major conurbations elsewhere, and the President is thought to have wanted to strengthen his hold on the north of the country, which is home to a large number of ethnic Russians. The move was certainly not a small one. Kazakhstan is huge, the size of Western Europe, and the chosen site of the new capital was 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from Almaty.
When Akmola was chosen as the capital people say it was practically an empty field. This might be a slight exaggeration, but it seems safe to say that there wasn’t much there. Despite this, the President had a vision. He renamed it Astana, which means ‘the capital’ in Kazakh, and drafted in the famous Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa to helped to plan the city. No expense was spared as the city grew and now Astana is dotted with a number of futuristic buildings. There is the Khan Shatyr shopping centre, designed by Normal Foster, which is the world’s largest marquee, and comes complete with a beach. The sand for which was imported from the Maldives. The shiny glass Finance Ministry, designed to look like a monetary note, is another innovative building and there are many more besides.
The city is certainly flashy, and it is also a dramatic contrast to the rest of the landscape. For over a thousand kilometres in each direction, the land is flat grassland, with just the occasional small town dotting the landscape. The contrast is so distinct that as you approach Astana and see the glistening shiny metal and glass buildings rise up from the grassland, they seem almost like a mirage.
Choosing a location and deciding to build a brand new capital city on it might sound slightly peculiar, but Kazakhstan is certainly not the only country to have done this. Brazilia in Brazil, Canberra in Australia and Washington DC in the US are all planned cities. However, the trouble with the Kazakh President’s chosen site is that the climate of it is not exactly brilliant. The summer is definitely the best season. July’s average maximum temperature is 27C (81F), which is pleasant, although there is a slight problem with bugs; the city is on the banks of the Ishim River, and the large amount of standing water can turn Astana into a playground for mosquitoes.
However, in winter the temperatures drop dramatically. For five months of the year, the temperature isn’t expected to rise above freezing at all. Ice and frost dominate the weather. By January the average maximum temperature is minus 12.5C (9.5F). This is far lower than the former capital, Almaty, which enjoyed a comparatively tropical January maximum of just minus 1C (30F).
The recent cold snap in Astana started abruptly on November 14, when winds gusting up to 55kph forced the temperature to drop from a mild minus 4C (25F), to a bone-chattering minus 14C (7F). Although minus 4C might not sound particularly mild for us in Doha, remember that Astana is the world’s second coldest capital city and minus 4C is almost spot on the average November high temperature.
Since then, the temperatures have fallen further. Schools in Astana closed for four days in a row as the temperature failed to get above minus 26C (-15F). During the night, of course, the temperature dropped even further. Some nights saw the temperature fall as low as minus 32C (-26F).
When people imagine weather this cold, they usually think of blizzards and snow drifts, but in reality to reach these extremely low temperatures the weather conditions have to be clear. This may at first seem counter intuitive, but clear skies are needed in order to release the heat from the ground. Many things alter how quickly heat can be released, but one of the most fundamental is cloud cover; clouds will absorb the heat which is being released, then re-release it back towards earth, but if the skies are clear, then any heat that escapes disappears into outer space and is lost forever.
Over the last few days, the cold snap has eased in Astana, but as winter tightens its hold on the city in the coming weeks and months, the temperatures will fall again. Despite this harsh climate, the capital of Kazakhstan is now home to more than 800,000 people, making Astana the second largest city in the country. I have to say, given its average maximum temperature of minus 12.5C in January, I’m rather glad I’m not one of the people who call it home.
View of Ishim River. Photo by Attila kz/Wikipedia