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This is an aerial view of a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A. This large pool is called Grand Prismatic hot spring. Hot springs are an extreme environment, but some kinds of microbes can live in them. The water in some hot springs is a strong acid, but some microbes manage to live in those, too. Different kinds of microbes have different colors. The colored microbes make this spring look like a rainbow!
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of the U.S. Natl. Park Service, photograph by Al Mebane.

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 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, really dry, or both.

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".

Poisonous chemicals in some environments are deadly to most creatures. Some environments have lots and lots of salt, which dries out and kills most living things. Some environments have high levels of acids that kill most creatures. Water seeping through old mines can turn into acid. Some hot springs are also acidic, and only special types of microbes can live there.

Some environments have lots of radiation. The tops of high mountains stick up above most of Earth's atmosphere. High places get hit with ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun. Some waste dumps created by humans have radioactive materials. Natural sources of radiation can also be found in caves and other places underground. There are other sorts of extreme environments in cracks in rocks underground and even inside tiny spaces within rocks.

High pressures make some environments extreme. Places far underground or deep beneath the ocean have high pressures that are deadly to most creatures. Some environments have almost no food, making them extreme. Other places don't have oxygen, so creatures like us who need to breathe it cannot survive there. Caves and the deep ocean are always dark. Plants and other creatures that make food using photosynthesis can't live there.

Last modified September 26, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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