Extreme Environments

Extreme environments include the polar regions and the desert. Northern environments will be the first and most dramatically altered by global warming. Deserts and desertification are also of concern in the face of global climate change. Some of their extremes include:

  • the hottest temperatures in the world
  • the coldest temperatures in the world
  • the driest environments in the world
  • the windiest climates of the world
  • the greatest daily temperature variations in the world
  • the greatest annual temperature variations in the world
  • the longest light periods (non-stop for up to 6 months at a time) and dark periods (non-stop for up to 6 months at a time) in the world

How are these landscapes shaped by these extremes? How do organisms contend with these extremes? In these courses we explore landscapes and life on the fringes of existence. We not only gain an appreciation for environments very different from where we live but we also gain a better understanding of how extremes shape the changes we observe everywhere on Earth.

We have a particular focus in Northern research, with projects on microclimate and hydrological research on carbon cycling in the Hudson Bay Lowlands near Churchill Manitoba, and wetland hydrology at various scales and snowmelt energetics on High Arctic islands. But we are similarly engaged with arid land biogeography, studying plant-climate interactions in North America’s deserts at the local scale (geographical associations between different plant species) and at the global scale (the effect of El Nino on desert plant communities).

Undergraduates get a glimpse of the relevance of their research findings in second year courses such as Hydrosphere and Vegetation and Soils. An in-depth appreciation for extreme environments follows in the fourth-year courses; Climates of High Latitudes, Dynamics of Snow and Ice, and Desert Ecosystems.

Most of the students in physical geography and environmental science who have undertaken B.Sc. theses in the last decade have found themselves in either Churchill or the High Arctic Islands during the summer, getting hands-on research experience while collecting field data for their own specific projects. Future students can also expect to find themselves in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert conducting research on cacti and other desert species.

At York, special funding programs exist to enable undergraduate and graduate students to undertake thesis research in extreme environments.