Shop Windows to the Universe

Our Glaciers: Then and Now activity kit helps you see the changes taking place in glaciers around the world. See all our activity kits and classroom activities.
This picture shows the continent of Antarctica. Most of Antarctica is an extreme environment. I'll bet you know that Antarctica is very cold. Did you know that most of it is very dry, too? Antarctica is considered the largest desert on Earth!
Click on image for full size
NASA

Extreme Environments

It is easy for living creatures to survive and grow in some places. Other places make it tough for life to get by. Scientists call places that are hard on life "extreme environments".

What kinds of places are "extreme environments"? Some that you may know about are deserts, mountain peaks, caves, and frozen places like the Arctic and Antarctic. Some environments are very hot or very cold, extremely dry, or both. Other extreme environments are filled with acids, are blasted with radiation, are under high pressure, or are tough places for most living things in lots of different ways.

Just because an environment is extreme doesn't mean there is no life there. Certain creatures can live and grow in extreme environments. Scientists have a special name for creatures that live in extreme environments. They are called "extremophiles".

Some environments are extreme in more than one way. Most deserts are both hot and dry. The Dry Valleys in Antarctica are very cold and dry. Some hot springs have acids in them and are nearly boiling hot. Hydrothermal vents on the sea floor don't get any sunlight, shoot out hot water filled with harsh chemicals, and are weighed down by the crushing pressure of the deep oceans.

When Earth was young, most environments on our planet were extreme compared to today. Environments on many other planets and moons within our Solar System and beyond are also extreme. In the last few decades, scientists have discovered life in extreme environments on Earth where they had thought it would be impossible for creatures to survive. Those discoveries made scientists more interested in studying extremophiles. Studying life in extreme environments may help us learn more about the history of life on Earth. It may also help us learn about the possibility of life on other worlds. Some extreme environments on Earth are a lot like extreme environments on other planets. Sometimes scientists test instruments for detecting life in extreme environments on Earth before they send them to other planets on space missions. For example, some instruments that are now on robots on Mars were first tested in the very, very dry Atacama Desert in Chile.

Last modified August 26, 2008 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Learn about Earth and space science, and have fun while doing it! The games section of our online store includes a climate change card game and the Traveling Nitrogen game!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

The Desert Biome

Deserts are very hot and dry places. Deserts get very little rain each year. So how do plants and animals live here? This section on the desert ecosystem will explain how! Do you know what a desert looks...more

The Arctic: Earth's North Polar Region

In the Arctic, you will find the Arctic Ocean surrounded by the continents of Europe, Asia, and North America. You will find the geographic North Pole and the magnetic North Pole there; both are in the...more

The Antarctic Region

What Will You Find There? If you travel to the South Pole, you will find the continent of Antarctica surrounded by the Southern Ocean. The geographic South Pole is marked by a large sign that scientists...more

Extreme Environments - Temperature and Moisture

This page describes environments that are very hot or very cold, really dry, or both. It is easy for living creatures to survive and grow in some places. Other places make it tough for life to get by....more

Extreme Environments - Acid, Radiation, and More!

This page describes environments that are filled with acids, are blasted with radiation, are under high pressure, or are tough places for most living things in other ways. It is easy for living creatures...more

Biomes and Ecosystems

Biomes are large areas of the world where there are similar plants, animals, and other living things. The living things are adapted to the climate. Explore the links below to learn more about different...more

Extremophiles

It is easy for living creatures to survive and grow in some places. Other places make it tough for life to get by. Scientists call places that are hard on life "extreme environments". There is a special...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF