The Earth is the only planet we know of that can support life in the cold, vast space. It seems we’re so, so lucky because our planet has a lot of unique characteristics that made life possible on it. But, interestingly, it also seems “where life can evolve, it will”. The diversity in life our planet sustains and the fact that some creatures are able to thrive in places seemingly inhospitable is simply amazing. Here are the top 10 most extreme places where life can be found on Earth.
An organism that can endure extreme conditions is called an extremophile (from Latin extremus meaning “extreme” and Greek philiā (φιλία) meaning “love”). The environmental conditions for extremophiles to optimally growth are considered extreme in comparison to the environmental conditions that are comfortable to humans.
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1. Volcanic hotspots (i.e. Yellowstone National Park)
Located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the Yellowstone National Park sits atop a volcanic hotspot. The magma bubbling so close to the surface, so the water in the center of its springs has temperatures that reach up to 87 °C (189 °F).
Once thought to be empty of life, these hot springs are in fact teeming with bacteria that have evolved to thrive in these high temperatures.
Yellowstone is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2. Mariana Trench
With a maximum-known depth of 36,069.55 feet ± 131.234 feet (10,994 meters ± 40 meters), the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep is the deepest point in the Earth’s oceans.
At the bottom of the trench, the water column above exerts a pressure of 1,086 bars (15,750 psi), more than 1,000 times the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level.
At this pressure, proteins literally get bent out of shape and it may seem as if nothing could survive.
But researchers found giant amoebas and some oil bacteria thriving in the sedimentary soil collected from the Mariana trench.
Even at the deepest, most pressurized place on Earth, organisms have found ways to survive.
3. Bubbling lakes of hot tar
Bubbling lakes of hot tar, like Pitch Lake in La Brea in southwest Trinidad, which is the largest natural asphalt deposit in the world, seems an unlikely place for life.
But, many of these lakes are teeming with microbes.
Most people cannot walk barefoot on asphalt that’s been sitting under the sun for too long but in these boiling hot asphalts, each gram of the sticky black goo harbors up to 10 million microbes.
The researchers indicated that extremophiles inhabited the asphalt lakes in populations ranging between 1 million to 10 million cells/gram.
The Pitch Lake is one of several natural asphalt lakes in the world. The La Brea Tar Pits (Los Angeles), McKittrick Tar Pits (McKittrick) and Carpinteria Tar Pits (Carpinteria) are all in the U.S. state of California. Lake Guanoco is in the Republic of Venezuela.
4. Active lava beds
Known as the “gateway to hell”, Africa’s Danakil desert is dotted with active lava beds. The area is known for its volcanoes and extreme heat, with daytime temperatures surpassing 50 °C (122 °F), making the desert one of the hottest places in the world.
There are also acidic springs, hydrothermal pools, and salt lakes. These features make it one of the harshest places to live.
But, even here, life has found a way to thrive – and it’s been doing so for a very long time! The bacteria found there are among the most ancient life forms on our planet.
Life has also been found thriving in the Siberian permafrost which is more than five million years old.
In geology, permafrost is ground, including rock or soil, at or below the freezing point of water 0 °C (32 °F) for two or more years. Most permafrost is located in high latitudes (in and around the Arctic and Antarctic regions), but at lower latitudes, alpine permafrost occurs at higher elevations.
Permafrost, glaciers, and other frozen environments are very good preservers of microbes and viruses. They can preserve organic molecules, bacteria, viruses, and fungi for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years.
Life found in permafrost could pose a problem for humanity one day: scientists have found fragments of RNAs from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra, for example.
Some scientists think that as the permafrost thaw, these “zombie” bacteria and viruses can cause diseases.
6. Bottom of the gold mines
Life may seem impossible at the bottom of an almost 2 miles (3.2 km) deep South African gold mine, where the temperature reaches 60 °C (140 °F).
But, a type of bacteria has adapted to live there.
It has not been in contact with the surface for millions of years, surviving only by eating nutrients from rocks undergoing radioactive decay.
Radioactive decay is the spontaneous breakdown of an unstable atomic nucleus resulting in the release of energy and matter from the nucleus.
7. Radioactive waste
Deinococcus radiodurans is an extremophilic bacterium, one of the most radiation-resistant organisms known: it is capable of withstanding an acute dose of 5,000 grays (Gy), or 500,000 rad, of ionizing radiation with almost no loss of viability, and an acute dose of 15,000 Gy with 37% viability.
For comparison, 4 grays or 400 rads is normally enough to kill 50% of humans. 10 grays or 1,000 rads can kill pretty much everybody.
Deinococcus radiodurans can also survive cold, dehydration, vacuum, and acid, and is therefore known as a polyextremophile and has been listed as the world’s toughest bacterium in The Guinness Book Of World Records.
8. Inside Chernobyl’s damaged nuclear reactor
The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 is considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in history.
But, despite the dangerously high radiation levels, in 1991, a black fungus called “Radiotrophic fungi” was found growing on the inside walls of Chernobyl’s damaged and highly radioactive nuclear reactor.
The radiotrophic fungi use the pigment melanin to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy for growth.
9. The dead sea
The dead sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth. It is too harsh for most life to thrive there.
Despite that, some salt-loving microbes happily live in the Dead sea.
10. McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica
Antarctica’s McMurdo dry valleys are the driest place in the world. The region is extremely cold, and the winds can reach speeds of 320 kilometers per hour (200 mph).
The Dry Valleys are considered one of Earth’s most extreme deserts. Despite that, the soil is full of microbes, and, in 2009, a 1.5-million-year-old Antarctic microbe community discovered there (source).
The fact that life can thrive in the most extreme desert on Earth raises hopes that life might also be found someday on Mars.
For a long time, it was believed that life can only evolve under certain conditions that were thought to be well-understood.
But, as we find more extreme examples of the shapes life can take here on Earth, we also broaden our horizons in our search for life beyond our planet.
This post is based on science communicator Hashem Al-Ghaili’s video titled “The most extreme places where life is found on Earth” below.
Hashem Al-Ghaili is best known for his infographics and videos about scientific breakthroughs. Al-Ghaili’s works gained the attention of science news sources and social media users alike.
Where life can’t thrive on Earth?
Researchers based their findings on combined molecular and microscopy techniques.
They say they find many airborne and human-associated contaminants in the polls, though.
Yellowstone National Park on Wikipedia
Mariana Trench on Wikipedia
“Giant “Amoebas” Found in Deepest Place on Earth” on the National Geographic website
Extremophile on Wikipedia
The Danakil Desert on Wikipedia
Deinococcus radiodurans on Wikipedia
“Scientists Say They’ve Found a Place on Earth Where No Life Can Thrive” on Science Alert