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Hands On Mineral Identification helps you to identify over 14,500 minerals! By M. Darby Dyar, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.
This is an aerial view of Grand Prismatic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A. Several types of microbes thrive in the extreme environments of hot springs like this one. Some organisms even prosper in highly acidic hot springs! The rainbow hues of some hot springs are produced by various colors of microbes that live in different temperature niches within each spring.
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Image courtesy of the U.S. Natl. Park Service, photograph by Al Mebane.

Extreme Environments - Acid, Radiation, and More!

This page describes extreme environments that are acidic or alkaline, are exposed to high levels of radiation, are under tremendous pressure, or are hostile to "normal" life in a number of other unusual ways. Extreme environments are places that are inhospitable to most "normal" living creatures. Extreme environments are not necessarily lifeless. Certain types of organisms, known collectively as "extremophiles", have adapted to survive or even thrive in various types of extreme environments.

Familiar extreme environments include deserts, mountain peaks, caves, and the frozen realms of the Arctic and Antarctic. Some extreme environments are very hot or very cold, extremely dry, or both.

Several types of chemicals present in certain environments push life to the brink and beyond. Places like Utah's (USA) Great Salt Lake and the aptly-named Dead Sea in the Middle East are typical hyper-saline (extremely salty) environments in which only specially adapted creatures can live. Other organisms manage to get by in extremely acidic or alkaline environments. Some hot springs and places where polluting chemicals seep from mines are typical acidic environments, with a pH of 3 or less, in which specialized microbes survive.

Some environments have high levels of radiation. High-altitude mountaintops, which jut above much of Earth's protective atmosphere, suffer increased levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. Caves and other underground voids, as well as human-created waste dumps, can contain radioactive materials that bombard nearby creatures. Some microbes live in microscopic pores inside of rocks or within fissures deep beneath Earth's surface.

Certain environments, usually far underground or deep beneath the ocean, have high pressures that are hard for most creatures to handle. Many niches are extremely poor in nutrients, depriving their inhabitants of food sources. Others lack oxygen, making them off-limits to "air breathers" like ourselves. Places such as caves and the deep ocean are perpetually dark, so photosynthetic organisms that form the basis of many food webs cannot grow there for lack of sunlight.

Last modified September 26, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

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

Extreme Environments

Extreme environments are places that are inhospitable to most "normal" living creatures. Extreme environments are not necessarily lifeless. Certain types of organisms, known collectively as "extremophiles",...more

Extremophiles

Some environments are inhospitable to most "normal" living creatures. However, these extreme environments are not necessarily lifeless. Certain types of organisms, known collectively as "extremophiles",...more

The Desert Biome

Deserts are full of interesting questions. How can anything survive in a place with hardly any water? Why is it so dry to begin with? You can find at least one desert on every continent except Europe....more

The Arctic: Earth's North Polar Region

North of the Arctic Circle (at 66.5N latitude) you will find the Arctic Ocean surrounded by the northernmost parts of the continents of Europe, Asia, and North America. You will find the geographic North...more

The Antarctic Region

What Will You Find There? South of the Antarctic Circle (at 66.5S latitude) you will find the continent of Antarctica surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the geographic South Pole and the magnetic South...more

Extreme Environments - Temperature and Moisture

This page describes environments that are very hot or very cold, extremely dry, or both. Extreme environments are places that are inhospitable to most "normal" living creatures. Extreme environments are...more

Salinity

About 70% of the Earth is covered with water, and we find 97% of that water in the oceans. Everyone who has taken in a mouthful of ocean water while swimming knows that the ocean is really salty. All water...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA