The Challenges of Extreme Environments


This page develops resources and lesson activities on both the physical and human challenges of living in extreme environments. It combines a combination of skill-based activities with insightful place locations and resources. There is also an in-depth investigation that students can either do in the classroom or at home based on the challenges of the mining industry in Western Australia. There are additional resources that then go as extension work to introduce indigenous economy and the values of their economic system. The students are introduced to a number of examples of tribal indigenous groups and their adaptations to live in extreme environments.

Enquiry Question

What are the physical and human challenges of living in extreme environments?

Lesson Time: 2-3 Hours

Lesson Objectives:

  • To describe the physical and human challenges of living in extreme environments
  • To investigate the challenges of living in remote mining communities in Australia
  • To describe ways humans adapt to living in extreme environments

Teacher Notes:

Lesson 1 

  • To describe the physical and human challenges of living in extreme environments
  • To investigate the challenges of living in remote mining communities in Australia

1. Physical challenges_Place, Processes and Possibilities - Start the lesson by showing the Human Planet clip of the most dangerous school run in the world. Students should attempt to identify as many challenges to do with the environment as possible. This can be presented as either a list or as a mind map as the students prefer.

2. Reading Comprehension_Processes and Possibilities_ Challenges - Then get them to read the detailed notes from within the site. Again they should add to the list of mind map of challenges.

3. Physical Challenges_ Place and Possibilities_Just show the video of the Wolaita tribe in Ethiopia because it's fascinating and we are reinforcing a need to know by using outstanding video examples.

4. OS Map Activity_Spatial Interactions and Scale_ Give the students a copy of the OS map and students should identify problems and challenges of living in that area. This is an exam style question worth 4 marks.

5. Photo Analysis_ Processes and Possibilities -  You can then show the students the gallery of images of the challenges associated with extreme cold environments. Students can make note of the challenges for each image

6. Assessment Task - Student investigation - The Challenges of mining in Newman, Australia_Place, Power and Possibiities_ Students should then investigate and write a report on the challenges of mining settlements in Western Australia. Students use the printable PDF worksheet as a guiding resource which informs them of the content of their report. The  Blendspace has multiple links and sites which they can use to develop their responses. But there is also a need for some additional independent research

Note: This activity has also worked well in pairs.

Lesson 2

  • To describe ways humans adapt to living in extreme environments

1. Empathy_ Place and Processes - Start the lesson by asking students to read the quote from Chief Seattle. 

Students can discuss what they consider to be the values of indigenous groups?

2. TOK_ Place and Processes_ They can read the resource on indigenous groups and answer the following questions as discussion points. This discuss can remain verbal and there is no need to write it down.

  1. Why does Chief Seattle consider it strange that the American government would want to buy the land on which the tribe is living? What is his view of this land?
  2. How do you think a person in the Navajo culture attains status?
  3. How does this compare to how someone in a capitalist economy attains status?
  4. What is the relationship of the people with natural resources?

3. Indigenous Economies_Place and Processes_ Hand out the printable PDF worksheet and students can add an example to each of the five aspects of indigenous economies

The purpose of the next activity is to watch the 4 different clips and for each one students write notes on examples of traditional knowledge as well as their interrelationship with the landscape and bio-genetic resources.

4. If time allows you could ask them to read from the site, examples of adaptations from modern society. There is a good clip showing the importance of dynamiting in the Alps

Starter Activity_Place, Processes and Possibilities_ Video Activity Based on BBC's Human Planet

Watch the following clip taken from BBC's Human Planet series and make a list of the different challenges of living in an extreme environment.

Mind map example - show as follow up to student activity

The Challenges of Living in Extreme Environments

Extreme environments by their very nature suggest that human habitation poses many challenges. Extreme dry and arid environments offer little in the way of natural resources, such as clean water and fertile soil to support humans. However, this is not to say that it is impossible to support life. There are many examples of indigenous groups that live a subsistence existence within and around the fringes of both cold and hot deserts. However, population density for these regions is very low. For example the Western Sahara has as little as 1 person for every 1km and the country of Namibia has only 2 people per km. The map below shows a distinct pattern of low population density in all the extreme environments.

World Population Density - Spot the extreme environments

Both hot and cold deserts with their absence of water and vegetation lead to a migratory lifestyle, with many nomadic herders moving cattle, goats and camel across miles of desert and arid regions, which in Africa can be transnational. The Aborigines of Australia are notorious for their hunting and gathering skills and many indigenous tribes of both East and West Africa like the Fulani of Niger are traveling thousands of miles in their search for good pasture.

Similarly, cold Polar Regions and tundra as well as high mountainous regions pose problems for human existence. Generally speaking the polar environments are too extreme to support life and are mainly absent of permanent human settlements. Economic activity develops around mineral resources, such as in Alaska and Yamal Peninsular in Siberia. Here significant human investment develops settlement and exploits vast quantities of oil and gas. The only true surviving indigenous Polar group today is the Nenet people of the Yamal Peninsular who are nomadic reindeer herders

Mountainous regions vary enormously at both the regional and local scale. Low lying valley settlements act as economic cores within the region but in remoter less accessible regions it is impossible to support settlements and these areas are increasingly experiencing outward migration.  At the local scale, aspect makes a big difference. South facing slopes in the northern hemisphere receive more solar radiation and consequently support more vegetation and human habitation. North facing slopes are cold and high altitudes become the seeding ground for valley glaciers. Generally mountainous areas only support a thin soil base and this is often lost by rapid rates of erosion and surface run-off.

Student Activity_Place and Possibilities_ Video Activity based on BBC's Human Planet

Watch the following clip from BBC's Human Planet series showing the precarious existence of the Wolaita tribe in Ethiopia

Despite climate and remoteness being clear barriers to human habitation this is not to say that human development is not possible. Mountainous regions by their very nature are generally inaccessible and transport routes are dangerous and slow. However, in post glacial environments, valley glaciers leave behind wide u-shaped valleys that have breached mountain sides creating perfect transport routes for car and rail. With human effort, investment and creativity development is possible provided the climatic conditions allow. Post-glacial environments with hanging valley features provide superb potential for hydro-electric power due to the high relief watersheds and the steep relief and deep lakes left behind by glaciers. Glacial environments have also cut out the landscape, which enables the development of mining industries. In more accessible terrain there also excellent opportunities for adventure tourism and countries like Nepal and Peru have really prospered from this and countries like Nepal and Peru have really prospered from this

Student Activity_Spatial Interactions and Scale_OS Map Activity

Click on the image below to open the streetmap link.

Describe the factors that make this environment extreme

 OS Map Activity

Student Activity_Processes and Possibilities_The Challenges of Cold Environments

The following gallery shows images relates to the challenges and problems of living and extracting resources from cold environments, mainly regions of permafrost in Alaska, Northern Canada and Russia.

View the gallery and make note of the challenges that you identify.

Students Assessment - Investigation_Place, Power and Possibilities -The Challenges of Mining in Western Australia

Students should investigate and write a report on the challenges of mining settlements in Western Australia. Use the following PDF worksheet and Blendspace to focus student's research.

 The Challenges of Mining Settlements in Western Australia

The best examples of human adaptation to extreme environments can be drawn from indigenous economies, of which there are many examples. People such as the Inuit on Alaska and Nenet in Siberia live in the harshest of climatic conditions and so have adapted a coexistence with their environment. This involves mainly a nomadic lifestyle. Other groups such as the Toubou of the Sahara live mainly a sedentary life but in extremely remote regions. Their economy requires them to make perilous journeys across the desert in order to trade.

Indigenous Economy and Indigenous Knowledge

In order to show an understanding of how human adaptation to extreme weather and climate it is important to have a knowledge of indigenous economy.

Student Activity_Place and Processes_Introduction to Indigenous Economy

Read the following PDF and  answer the questions on the worksheet

Indigenous Economy Introduction

Student Activity_Place and Processes_ Identifying Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous people who's families have known and adapted to living in extreme environments the best show remarkable abilities and knowledge to live and exist in extreme environments, despite the challenges.

Watch the following clips and complete the noting sheet on indigenous knowledge and adaptation to extreme weather and climate.

 Indigenous adaptations sheet

Touboo Tribe, Sahara - Film - no commentary

               The San People, Kalahari Desert

                         Dorobo Tribe, Kenya

                    Nenet Nomads, Siberia

The Challenges of Avalanches

There are also many examples of adaptation to extreme weather and climate by modern society. In places like Alpine mountain regions, such as in Switzerland, engineering has opened up previously inaccessible areas with mountain roads, tunnels and lifts. As a result successful rural economies have established most notably tourism, especially the tourism industry. In  order to maintain the safety of tourists in mountain environments authorities take important steps to control risks, as the following clip illustrates.

In periglacial environments, the upper part often thaws and is known as the active layer. In order to adapt to this process, infrastructure needs to be built above the active layer. You can see see examples of this in the slideshow below

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