There are plenty of places in the world that offer a welcoming, even idyllic environment. But then there are locations such as Commonwealth Bay, with 95mph winds, Vostok Station with temperatures of minus 129°F and Lake Nyos, which is apt to exhale clouds of toxic gas. Read on to find out about 20 extremely inhospitable locations where you won’t want to book a vacation.
20. Aomori City, Japan
For many, a white Christmas is the stuff of dreams. But if you live in the Japanese city of Aomori, you may well have a rather more jaundiced view of the charms of the frozen white stuff. The city is located in the far north of Honshu Island, overlooking Mutsu Bay, which opens onto the Tsugaru Strait.
Aomori is mainly notable for one thing: the extravagant amount of snow that falls there every winter. For example, in 2018 the city groaned under the weight of 21 feet of snowfall. A 2019 CNN Travel article noted that the almost 300,000 citizens of the metropolis had to endure an annual onslaught of “heavy blizzards and ice storms.” Frigid north winds howl in from Siberia every winter causing this excess of snow, which persists from November through to April.
19. Bouvet Island, Norway
If you’re looking for splendid seclusion, Bouvet Island is one possibility. It is a Norwegian possession which sits in complete isolation in the South Atlantic’s ocean wastes. It’s squarish in shape and less than six miles from coast to coast at its widest point. The nearest neighbor is Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land, some 720 miles distant.
Before you think of journeying to Bouvet, you might want to learn a little more about it. Entirely uninhabited, the isle is named after Frenchman Jean-Baptiste-Charles Bouvet de Lozier, who discovered it in 1739. The terrain is uncompromisingly hostile, with a quasi-fortress of ice walls running right around the coast. In the interior, you’ll find more ice with the occasional relief of some bare rocks. Perhaps not the best choice for a bolt-hole after all.
18. Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica
Chicago might be known as “The Windy City”, but compared to Commonwealth Bay in the Antarctic, the metropolis merely experiences light breezes from time to time. The bay and surrounding Antarctic terrain were explored by a team of scientists led by Sir Douglas Mawson between 1911 and 1914. One of the measurements they took was the wind speed at Cape Denison, which overlooks Commonwealth Bay.
Mawson recorded winds at Commonwealth Bay, some 2,000 miles south of Australia, at speeds of as high as 95mph. On average through the year the wind blows across the bay at gale force. In his 1914 book Home of the Blizzard, Mawson wrote, “The climate proved little more than one continuous blizzard the year round; a hurricane of wind roaring for weeks together, pausing for breath only at odd hours.”
17. Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
The Danakil Depression, so called because it’s 410 feet below sea level, is in Ethiopia’s Afar region in the north-west of the country. It’s hot there, a year-round average of 94°F, and it’s very dry. Just four to eight inches of rain falls there each year. You’d think those factors make it inhospitable enough. But there’s worse.
There are many volcanoes in the Danakil Depression and one of those, called Dallol, is surrounded by streams and hydrothermal pools. The land is a bubbling mass of sulfur deposits which expel toxic gases. In fact the only things that can live in these extreme conditions are microscopic bacteria-like organisms aptly called extremophiles.
16. The Vostok Station, Antarctica
The Vostok Station is a research facility set on the ice sheet that covers the East Antarctic. The Soviet Union established the station in 1957, and it’s now run by Russia. During the Antarctic summer about 30 research and support staff occupy the base, which sits on an ice sheet that is an astonishing 2.3 miles thick.
This research station has the distinction of having registered the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth. That was in July 1983, one of the southern hemisphere’s winter months. The thermometer reading on the 21st of the month was a bone-chilling -128.6°F. Even in the Antarctic high summer month of December, when humans are at Vostok, the temperature doesn’t get higher than about -30°F.
15. Death Valley, California
California’s Death Valley doesn’t have its sinister name for nothing. Get yourself lost around these parts without sufficient water and you’ll have an excellent chance of dying. And it’s not just exceedingly dry; the extreme heat rockets to almost implausible highs. The hottest temperature ever measured there was 134°F which was recorded on July 10, 1913 at Greenland Ranch. But just why is Death Valley so exceptionally hot and dry?
The answer lies in the topography. The dryness comes from the fact that there are four mountain ranges between the valley and the ocean. So rain-bearing clouds have lost their moisture by the time they arrive at Death Valley – the area usually experiences just two inches of rainfall each year. The heat is caused by a combination of the valley’s low elevation, 282 feet below sea level, and the surrounding wall of mountains. Those two factors stoke temperatures and keep them high.
14. Cahills Crossing, Australia
Would you cross a shallow river ford if there was a risk that you might be grabbed by a saltwater crocodile? And by the way, these brutes can grow up to 23 feet long. Presumably, most people would answer the preceding question with a resounding, “No.” But there are those who are prepared to take just that risk when it comes to Cahills Crossing on the East Alligator River in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Sadly, not all those who have gambled their lives by taking Cahills Crossing won their bet. Certainly, the odds really don’t look great. In 2016 local park rangers did a quick count of crocs near the crossing. They spotted 120 of the fearsome beasts, and sometimes they come together in groups of up to 40. According to the Daily Mail newspaper, to date five people have lost their lives in the jaws of crocodiles at or near Cahills Crossing.
13. Mawsynram, India
Farmers and gardeners often welcome rain, but you can have too much of a good thing. People who live in the Indian village of Mawsynram in north-east India’s Meghalaya State certainly might feel that the rainfall on their patch is a heavy burden to bear. That’s because more rain falls there than anywhere else on Earth.
An averagely sodden year in Mawsynram sees a staggering 467 inches of rain pouring down from the skies. So just why does the unfortunate, and very soggy, village see nearly 39 feet of rain each year? In summer, the prevailing winds sweep moisture-saturated air northwards from the Bay of Bengal and across Bangladesh. Those rain clouds then hit the Khasi Hills where Mawsynram is located and the annual deluge commences.
12. Mount Everest, Nepal-China border
Mount Everest is located on the border between Nepal and China in the midst of what has to be the world’s most impressive mountain range, the Himalayas. Its summit soars up to 29,029 feet above sea level, making it the highest mountain on the planet. The first recorded incursion by humans onto Everest’s peak came in 1953 after eight failed 20th-century attempts.
It was the Tibetan Tenzing Norgay and the British Sir Edmund Hillary who finally made the punishing ascent to Everest’s summit in 1953. Since then, many more have climbed through the clouds to the mountain’s extremely inhospitable summit. But it’s a perilous venture. Since 1922, more than 300 people have lost their lives as they tried to conquer the world’s highest mountain. Eleven died in 2019 alone.
11. Kīlauea volcano, Hawaii
The Kīlauea volcano, set on the south-east tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, is the island’s youngest volcano. Our planet’s surface is peppered with volcanoes, but Kīlauea is one of the most active of all. In fact, the U.S. Geology Service’s website says, “Kīlauea ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes and may even top the list.”
Kīlauea has erupted on 34 occasions since 1952, and molten lava flowed from it almost without a pause in all the years from 1983 to 2018. This lengthy period of activity came to a climax when a lava lake flowed down the volcano. This was accompanied by what experts say was Kīlauea’s largest eruption in a minimum of two centuries. Some 700 homes near the volcano were destroyed by the catastrophe.
10. North Sentinel Island, Indian Ocean
North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean is part of the Andaman archipelago. Its inhabitants, the Sentinelese, have a reputation as one of the most isolated tribes in the world. The Indian government has enacted laws to protect the island, but it seems that the islanders are well able to protect themselves.
There have been several visits to Sentinel Island in the last 200 years, but these have often been met by extreme hostility from the islanders. Because of this, no one even knows for sure how many of them there are, with estimates ranging from as few as 15 to as many as 500. One American, 26-year-old John Allen Chau, landed illegally on the island in November 2018. The islanders killed him, possibly with an arrow fired from a bow.
9. New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Florida’s New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County is a beautiful strip of white sand lapped by the waves of the Atlantic. It’s the sort of beach that holiday companies use on the covers of their brochures. But there’s a sting – or rather a bite – in the tail of this pretty seaside location: sharks. Lots of them. And these are sharks which sometimes attack humans.
Our fear of sharks can be dismissed as somewhat irrational. After all, as Forbes magazine pointed out in 2011, box jellyfish, found in the seas around Australia and the Philippines, kill more people. But we humans seem to have a fear of sharks deeply ingrained in our psyches. And it’s a terror that’s hardly without foundation. Since 1882 there have been 312 recorded shark attacks off New Smyrna Beach and along the nearby coastline.
8. Gurugram, India
According to campaign group Greenpeace, Gurugram, formerly known as Gurgaon and located in northern India, can lay claim to a decidedly unwelcome title. In 2018 it was the most polluted city in the world. The amount of microscopic particulate matter in the air breathed by Gurugram’s 2.7 million unlucky citizens in 2018 was higher than anywhere else on our planet.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes the potential harm that particulate matter in the air poses. The agency’s website points out that the minuscule liquid drops and solids that make up particulates can be drawn deep into the lungs when we breathe. The tiny particles can then enter the bloodstream. Illnesses associated with this type of pollution include heart attacks, asthma and lung disease.
7. Lake Natron, Tanzania
Most of Lake Natron is in the east African country of Tanzania, with its northernmost corner poking just over the border into neighboring Kenya. The lake has a startlingly bright red hue that’s caused by the tiny organisms which thrive in its highly alkaline salty waters. In fact, the lake is the most caustic in the world. It’s also very hot, with temperatures as high as 140°F.
In fact, there are a number of species that can thrive in this toxic water including large numbers of lesser flamingos and a specialized breed of tilapia fish. But the lake’s weird chemical composition means that when an animal falls in the water it becomes calcified, effectively turned into stone. Photographer Nick Brandt, who worked on a project at Lake Natron, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2013, “Nobody would ever swim in this – it’d be complete madness.” Quite.
6. Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic
Give or take a few miles, the South Atlantic islands of Tristan da Cunha lie about halfway between South America and southern Africa. For governance purposes, the six islands are part of the British overseas territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The last name refers to the group of six islands, as well as to one of those islands. And they’re a very long way from any continent, roughly 2,000 miles. One of the four uninhabited islands actually glories in the name of Inaccessible.
People do live on the island of Tristan da Cunha and on St Helena, with the latter having the larger population of some 6,000, while the former has only 245 residents. Until recently, their only physical contact with the outside world was a British Royal Mail ship which made the five-day trip from South Africa’s Cape Town every three weeks. An airport opened in 2016 but unfortunately it has been plagued by heavy winds. The first direct flight from London, a Boeing 757, finally arrived in September 2020.
5. Mount Thor, Canada
Mount Thor’s 5,495-foot-high peak rises from Baffin Island, which is located in the Arctic Circle between north-east Canada’s mainland and Greenland. Named after the Viking god of thunder, the mountain has a unique distinction. Part of Mount Thor, a 4,101-foot cliff, has the highest sheer drop in the world. And with an overhang angle 15 degrees off the vertical, it’s also incredibly steep.
Set in Canada’s Auyuittuq National Park, Mount Thor is a popular destination for climbers, paragliders and base jumpers. But climbing it is not for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced. It took more than 30 failed attempts before the cliff was scaled successfully in 1985. And that effort took a four-strong team an arduous 33 days of battling against rock falls and extreme weather.
4. Darién Gap, Colombia and Panama
The Darién Gap has a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous jungles. In fact some say that it is the most perilous jungle anywhere. It’s located along the border that separates Panama and Colombia, an effective bridge between South and Central America. The 10,000-square-mile jungle includes rainforest, swamplands and mountainous terrain.
The dangers of the lawless Darién Gap include deadly threats from wild animals and from humans. The animals to avoid include poisonous snakes, while the bad guys include guerrilla fighters, straightforward bandits and drugs and arms smugglers. Would-be migrants from all over the world trek through the jungle and ruthless outlaws prey on them, taking their valuables and all too often their lives.
3. Lake Nyos, Cameroon
A quick glance at the waters of Lake Nyos does not reveal any apparent dangers, as the potentially fatal peril of the lake lies deep beneath its bed. Nyos is set in the crater of an extinct volcano and it’s located in the north of Cameroon, towards the Nigerian border. The people who live around the lake make their living from farming the land and raising livestock.
It was in 1986 that Lake Nyos unveiled its potential for catastrophe. A pocket of volcanic magma under the lake bed had leaked carbon dioxide into the waters. This caused pressure to build until an unknown event – possibly an explosion or a landslip into the lake – disturbed the waters, causing a cloud of the gas to be released. The lethal, heavier-than-air fumes then flowed down the adjacent valley at a speed estimated at about 60mph. The result was deadly: countless birds fell from the sky, cattle and other animals dropped dead, and more than 1,700 villagers lost their lives to suffocation.
2. Atacama Desert, Chile
The 50,000 square miles of the Atacama Desert extend for about 600 miles and lie between two mountain ranges in Chile, the Andes and the Cordillera de la Costa. At 150 million years old, it’s the most ancient desert on the planet. And it’s exceptionally arid, one of the driest places in the world. Surprisingly though, it’s not that hot compared to other deserts. The average temperature is a frankly temperate 63°F.
The unusually dry conditions are caused by the Andes blocking rain from the east and the properties of the Pacific Ocean to the west on the other side of the Cordillera de la Costa Mountains. The ocean has cold waters rising to the surface which impede rain-cloud formation. At the center of the desert, the driest part, the only living things are microbes. Nothing else can survive in this parched environment.
1. Oymyakon, Russia
The far-flung community of Oymyakon is in Russia, nearly 3,300 miles to the east of the country’s capital, Moscow. The village holds the unenviable distinction of being the coldest inhabited place anywhere on Earth. Living there doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. The good folks of Oymyakon must be tough, really tough.
In the depths of the frozen winter, Oymyakon sees only about three hours of daylight. The frost makes the ground so hard that most crops will not grow, so the villagers’ diet consists mostly of meat and fish. In the village square there’s a monument, a concrete bull, commemorating the coldest temperature ever recorded at Oymyakon. That was back in 1924 when the mercury plunged to a teeth-chattering -96°F.