Extreme weather events that have historically occurred every 100 years in the United States are now happening every three years. A new normal has arisen due to climate change and it's translating into walloping blizzards, scorching heat, mega droughts and Paleo era-like floods.
Yet as we struggle to adjust, there are people who have lived with such extremes for centuries. How have they learned to adapt and survive? Here's a rundown of some of the world's most extreme climates and the people who live there.
Oymyakon at sunset. If you look closely at the lower right, you can make out the shadows of buildings in the cold fog. (Photo: Maarten Takens/flickr)
Siberia is the coldest inhabited place on Earth. There, temperatures fall to minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Just breathing the air outside is deadly; it could freeze your lungs. Yet the Yakut people have lived in the Oymyakon area since the 13th century.
To brave the elements, locals shun modern fabrics and instead wear merino wool and animal fur, which have proven to be more resilient than anything humans can conjure in a laboratory. They use slitted goggles made from animal hoofs when blizzards whip up winds that can howl at more than 100 mph.
Special diets are also followed. They drink reindeer and horse milk, which contain micronutrients, and eat ox meat, which slows the metabolism and supplies the body with enough calories to fight the elements. In extreme cold weather, the body's natural defenses deplete energy quickly, and it becomes difficult just to pump blood to the heart — which is why most heart attacks occur in wintertime, no matter where in the world you live.
An exposed volcanic crater in Dallol. (Photo: Matej Hudovernik/Shutterstock)
The hottest inhabited place on Earth, temperatures in Dallol regularly soar above 100 degrees and can reach a searing 145 degrees. The ground offers little relief from the hot air and sun's rays: Dallol sits on an active volcano. Standing in place for even a few minutes can melt your shoes.
Dallol is home to the the Afar people, who call the town "the Gateway to Hell." Dallol is 300 miles away from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
A man works to gather salt in Dallol. (Photo: Achilli Family/flickr)
Afars are nomadic and typically move throughout the region at night, when it's cooler, to gather salt. Salt is an important staple in high-temperature climates because sweat depletes the body of salt and other minerals (electrolytes). Still, Afars drink cow or goat's milk as their own form of Gatorade. New scientific studies show that certain milks provide the same, or better electrolyte and hydrating solutions as any newfangled sports drink.
To adapt to their climate, Afars utilize particular paint colors that reflect the sun. They have even figured unique ways to leverage the high temperatures: they use a composting technique to heat water, which also serves to cleanse water of bacteria.
A tree root bridge common to Mawsynram. These bridges take years to build but can withstand the region's wet and wild weather. (Photo: Ashwin Kumar/flickr)
Located in northeastern India on the border of Bangladesh, this is the wettest inhabited place on Earth. There, in the lush rain forest that rises of out of the valley from the Bay of Bengal and kisses the feet of the Himalayan mountains, winds and moisture get trapped and fall in sheets to the ground. More than 500 inches of rain falls in Mawsynram and the surrounding areas annually. That's about 10 times as much as the average rainfall for the average city — an incredible amount. (Seattle, Washington, for example gets about 38 inches of rain per year while New York City averages 44 inches.) The wet season in Mawsynram runs from June to September, when as much as 5 feet of rain can come down in a single day.
Villagers prepare for such rainfall months in advance. The Garos and Khasis tribes inhabit this region. They were divided in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned between Bangladesh and India. These tribes have learned to fashion bridges out of jute, because it can withstand the wild swings in temperature and conditions, and to make "knups," which are turtle shell-like covers made of bamboo strands. Knups are worn like ponchos and keep the tribesmen dry during heavy rains. People in the region also utilize building techniques that take into account mudslides; the floors are raised well above ground, for example.
The Atacama Desert, Chile
A church located in the Atacama Desert. (Photo: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock)
Almost unbelievably dry, some areas have not seen precipitation of any kind in more than 400 years, if ever. Yet, there are still dwellings in Atacama. Animals still roam. Plants still survive. People live there. The Atacameno tribe has inhabited this extreme desert since before the Inca Empire and the Spanish colonization. San Pedro de Atacama is the central town village in the area.
The terrain of the Atacama Desert is likened to Mars. In fact, NASA uses the Atacama to test instruments for Mars missions. It's the soil that's so unique — perhaps unlike any other on Earth; it is so dry that there are no living organisms of any kind in it. To give the soil life, farmers lay the horns of freshly slaughtered cattle to attract insects that in turn fertilize the land and increase crop yields by as much as 75 percent.
People who live in the Atacama have even figured out a way to create water out of air: fog nets capture moisture in the air and provide a usable source of water.
The United States, because of its geographical location, experiences the most extreme types of weather of any country on the planet. As those extremes become even more so, we will have to learn how to live with changing conditions. Learning from others is a good start.
Thomas M. Kostigen is the founder of The Climate Survivalist.com and a New York Times bestselling author and journalist. He is the National Geographic author of "The Extreme Weather Survival Guide: Understand, Prepare, Survive, Recover" and the NG Kids book, "Extreme Weather: Surviving Tornadoes, Tsunamis, Hailstorms, Thundersnow, Hurricanes and More!" Follow him @weathersurvival, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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