There are many different types environments in this world – from hot wet swamps, to harsh desert to dry sheets of ice. Each environment brings with it new challenges for the people to live through.
The shape, and movement of our round world means that it can be cold in one place and warm in another and the same for night and day. Due to the tilt of the world’s rotation both the far north and south go through months without light, and even when they do have light the sun never comes much above the horizon, leaving the world with lands of ice.
Lands of Ice
Much of the world can become frozen under sheets of ice throughout the cold times, but some parts never fully thaw; Greenland, the Arctic, Antarctic and Alaska are just a few of these places. These kind of places can experience anything from a month to 6 months without sunlight, temperatures getting as low -90oc, with -50oc being commonplace in some.
When the land is covered in snow and ice there is very little food for people and animals, since not much grows for half the year there are no trees to help slow down the wind, the wind speed can get as high as 50 knots in ice storms.
Surviving in these places without modern technology might seem impossible to some, but nature has been very resourceful – and humanity’s trick is often to copy nature’s solutions.
Animals in extremely cold environments have a number of common adaptations. They are generally bulky, and somewhat round, minimizing the surface area of their skin compared to their overall volume and making it easier to conserve heat, and thereby spend less energy on heating their bodies.
Though this is hard to artificially induce, humans who live in such regions over many generations often have such features naturally evolve – inuits for instance are both shorter and stockier than people of other ethnicities.
To further minimize heat loss the skin of arctic animals is generally also covered with thick fur (or feathers) with a waterproof undercoat that ensures that insulating air-pockets can be maintained.
Humans can copy these adaptations with artificial fabrics, but the most efficient way is simply to outright steal them. Making clothing from seal skin is an effective way to gain protection from the cold, and makes efficient use of a byproduct of hunting that’s already necessary. The most important technological adaptation in this clothing is a simple dual-layering – as the waterproof nature of the fur can rapidly wear off after the animal dies, it is vital that there be some fur not exposed to the elements, and therefore it is standard practice to wear at least one layer of skin with the fur pointed towards the body, allowing trapped air to stay within.
Another way of surviving a cold polar environment, and one that is especially important for smaller animals, is to create a warmer subclimate. Rodents, such as hares, lemmings and squirrels, do this in two ways: firstly they tend to travel in groups, allowing the warmth of may neighbouring bodies to take the deepest bite off the surrounding cold; and secondly they build burrows and nests, enclosed spaces which provide insulation, and can be warmed by their own body heat.
Humans are too large for traditional burrowing, but the building of nests (in the form of tents or houses) is a standard expectation. Whether those nests were built of animal hides or snow, they all serve the same purpose – to allow a huddled group of humans to survive even the coldest of nights in a (relatively) warm and safe place.
Counterintuitively the second biggest problem of the icy polar realms is shared with equatorial deserts: a lack of water. Drinking water is hard to find since the surface is covered in ice – even the surface of the sea is frozen.
There are two main methods to resolve this problem – getting water from your food, and melting the ice yourself. All animals get at least some water from the metabolism of their food – both fat and sugars burn to produce a mix of H2O and CO2, and this water is often enough to live on. Some animals will melt ice by simply eating it, trusting in their other polar adaptations to keep them warm despite the freezing cold that they’re inviting into their bodies – but even these animals will generally consume ice that is already warmed by their own body heat.
Humans are not sufficiently adapted to polar deserts to be able to go entirely without water, and so they rely on melting the ice. But while modern technology allows ice to be melted on the move, such is rarely the optimal approach: for those living in the arctic areas it is instead most common that ice will be brought into the home, and allowed to melt naturally within the warm environment within – after all any home that remains constantly below freezing is unsuitable for long-term habitation.
In more dire cases of thirst it is instead possible to warm ice using the bodyheat of only a single individual – placing a waterskin full of ice between layers of clothing allows it to gradually warm up, without causing frostbite as more direct contact with the skin would.
Finally there is the question of food. Plants in polar conditions never grow large, and can only be found in the summer, and as such any herbivorous land animal must either migrate or hibernate in the winter months. Within the sea, however, plankton and algae remain available year-round, as they have no soil in which to hide their seeds, and currents that constantly bring them from other parts of the world.
Thus the winter food chain will always be fundamentally pinned upon the sea, and no large predator in such a region will be without some ability to catch and consume fish – even if the greater part of their diet consists of smaller semi-aquatic predators (as with polar bears and seals).
Humans cannot hibernate, but it is not uncommon for us to migrate. However, land into which to migrate is not always available or desirable, and as arctic civilisation tends towards the carnivorous anyway, hunting and fishing throughout the winter is a standard solution.
In Your Games and Stories
If your adventurers journey into the ice they will face all the environmental challenges mentioned above. Without skilled assistance or advice they will likely make foolish choices, so be sure to be aware of how well they plan ahead.
It’s also worth considering who the adventurers are likely to find already living in such a place.
What race is stocky, lives in caves, loves meat and is able to go a long time without water? The answer is, of course, dwarves.
They are the natural inhabitants of an arctic realm in any world that features them, being almost perfectly adapted to such an environment.
Meanwhile, most varieties of elves would be utterly incapable of living in such a place. They are slender and while they do eat meat they generally prefer a significant amount of fruits, nuts and leaves among their food.
Going more exotic, any form of reptile life is utterly unsuitable for such a habitat – while some might be capable of surviving the mild cold of the summer, when the days are far longer than the nights, their cold-blooded nature means they couldn’t maintain a sufficient temperature in any other season. Only with the use of magic could such a race survive.
Trolls and yeti are commonly placed in this winter ice, but their depictions are often unsuitable for the climate. An arctic troll or yeti would be foolish to move around upright, with long legs and arms exposed to the air, unless they were already engaged in combat – instead they would likely move more like a polar bear, pulling their body closer to the ground and moving on all fours as they stalk their prey, appearing to suddenly sprout from the snow only when they were sufficiently close to reach out and grab their unwitting victims.