Extreme Environments

Characteristics of Extreme Environments

The polar regions and hot arid areas both come under extreme environments because of their unique characteristics. Polar regions are located in areas of high latitude, whereas arid areas cover more latitudes but are mostly located in the tropics.

Polar Climates

Hot Arid Climates

Variations in Extreme Environments

You are likely to find variation in extreme environments, examples of these are:


Glacial ice-covered - e.g.: Greenland
Tundra frozen soil - e.g.: Alaska

Hot Arid

Deserts less than 250 mm rain per year - e.g.: Sahara
Drylands 250-500 mm rain per year - e.g.: Sahel

Why are extreme environments fragile

The unique and extreme conditions make these polar and hot arid areas very fragile, however plants and animals have been able to adapt to live in them.

Polar flora and fauna

Glacial Regions

  • Only able to support very little life other than some insects, arachnids and mice.
  • Some hardy plants grow close to the ground to survive the strong winds.

Tundra Regions

  • More animals, insects and birds are able to adapt to Tundra regions compared to glacial regions. They have adapted to survive the cold with thick layers of fat and/or fur. Many of them are also coloured white to camouflage themselves against the white snow.
  • Boggy conditions suit water-loving plants such as sedges and moss.

Hot arid flora and fauna

Semi-arid regions

  • The animals found in these regions are able to store water in fat and tend to be nocturnal, spending the day underground out of the Sun.
  • Insects collect moisture from the air.
  • Some animals have characteristics which allow them to dissipate heat easily. E.g.: large ears.
  • Plants store water (acacia trees) and/or have deep roots to reach water which is stored deep underground
  • Seeds can stay dormant for years, and when they receive rain, they are able to produce brightly coloured flowers to attract insects immediately.

Very arid regions are unlikely to have much plant or animal life

People and extreme climates

People are able to adapt to the harsh environments of the extreme polar and arid areas. These people who live in these environments often have their own special cultures.

Polar environment - human adaptations

Adaptations to the cold

  • Triple glazing in houses
  • Wear layers, wool, fur etc. to keep warm
  • Use of geothermal power

Adaptations to frozen ground

  • Houses raised up above ground
  • Hunting rather than growing crops.
  • Roads built on gravel to prevent them cracking with solifluction.

Adaptations to the snow

  • Steep roofs so snow falls off easily.

Hot arid environment - human adaptations

Adaptations to the heat

  • Buildings painted white to reflect the heat
  • Thick walls and small windows to keep the heat out.
  • Air conditioning in homes
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothes.
  • Wearing head coverings

Very arid regions are unlikely to have much plant or animal life

  • Flat roofs to catch water
  • Irrigation used to grow crops
  • Nomadic farming so areas aren't overgrazed by herds

Threats to extreme environments

Although climate change is one of the main threats to extreme environments, there are also other factors which could damage them, mainly caused by humans.

Threat Impact in Alaska (polar region) Impact in Sahel (arid region)
Pollution Oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez, have caused environmental catastrophes in the past environmental catastrophes in the past The threat of drought may increase by rising levels of air pollution from newly emerging economies and industrialised countries.
Land degradation Permafrost melting due to buildings heating up land, especially around big urban centres. Desertification leads to disappearing vegetation and soil erosion. It is partly caused by overgrazing of live stock.
Cultural dilution Loss of native languages and cultural traditions from the growing influence of Western cultures Traditional rituals performed to entertain tourists. Western cultures are beginning to have a strong influence.
Out-migration The lack of social and employment opportunities is resulting in many people, especially the young, moving away. The lack of opportunities is resulting in people, especially the young, moving away.

The Threat of Climate Change

While the whole world is at threat to the effects of Climate Change, extreme environments are very vulnerable because of how fragile their ecosystems are.

In polar environments, climate change can lead to... In hot arid environments, climate change can lead to...
a build up of melt water can cause lakes to burst their banks, resulting in flood water destroying ecosystems extreme drought which the most adapted animals & plants can survive
solifluction - in Tundra regions, large areas of soil melt and move like a landslide destroying vegetation in its path. desertification - where the area of desert increases. Animals which used to be able to live in what used to be semi-arid areas cannot adapt and unfortunately die.
The effects of climate change in polar environments... The effects of climate change in hot arid areas...
Warmer Summers
  • Changes in sea ice cover
  • Glacier Retreat
  • Permafrost melting
  • Species Migration
Less rainfall
  • dryland changes to desert (desertification)
  • reduction in grazing for livestock
Sea level rises
  • Coastal flooding
  • Erosion
  • Ecosystem changes
Less reliable rainfall
  • drought problems made worse
  • possibility of intense storms increasing soil erosion
All these effects will most likely impact upon humans, also causing...
  • coastal towns and industry to be threatened
  • life being more uncertain
  • people more likely to move away
All these effects will most likely impact upon humans, also causing
  • Famine and conflict
  • Migration

Sustainable management

In order for extreme environments to survive, there needs to be some sustainable management.

Sustainable management:

Sustainable management in hot arid regions

In the poorer areas of hot arid regions (e.g.: Tanzania, Africa) water management is very challenging. Large-scale projects are normally too expensive and often will not meet the need of the local people. The most suitable and sustainable solutions for these areas involve intermediate technology such as...

  • Lining wells with concrete to avoid sewage contamination.
  • Hand pumps pump water up from deeper underground and the top of the well can be capped with a concrete cover to prevent contamination.
  • Water is stored in rain barrels for later use.

Sustainable management in polar regions

  • Use geothermal power where available
  • Have conservation zones to protect Arctic fauna and flora
  • Promote native cultures
  • Protect the environment fro pollution
  • Promote ecotourism
  • Fish farming as sustainable alternative to commercial trawling

Global Management

There have been global actions which have been taken to protect extreme climates from climate change.

1997 - Kyoto Treaty

2009 - Copenhagen Accord

2010 - Cancun Agreements

2011 - Durban Agreement

Agreements - polar regions

1961 - Antarctic Treaty

  • Restricts commercial development

1998 - Protocol Environmental Protection

  • Extended Antarctic Treaty with rigorous protection.
  • No new activities allowed in Antarctica unless very low impact

Agreements - arid regions

UN Convention to Combat Desertification

  • Since 1994 it aimed to combat land degradation, reduce poverty and develop sustainable solutions.
  • Promotes 'bottom-up' solutions: local people get funding and advice
  • 195 countries agreed to give money, share information and act together.