The setting would be an almost permanently snowy climate. Average temperature 10 to -5 degrees celsius, with little difference between seasons.

Edit: This is a human civilization. I suppose the climate is similar to tundra (with sparse pine forest). To the west is the ocean, and to the east there is a mountain range. I am writing a medieval-ish fantasy world.

(I realize this question really might not be fit for this community. Either way, I would like to thank you commenters, this has been great help to me. I definitely feel welcome as a new member here! I'm sorry if I asked an irrelevant question or if I worded it badly.)

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    $\begingroup$ In the real world, the answer is fish and seals. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jan 29 '17 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Or reindeer: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_cuisine But the problem is that you aren't going to have plants growing below freezing. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 29 '17 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ Would prefer a bit more detail with the question. Is this on a frozen continent, or on an ice shelf over an ocean or sea? Also, if it's on land, is there a forest, or mountains, or is it just empty snow desert? $\endgroup$ – Atlas the Worldbuilder Jan 29 '17 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to rethink your scenario. What you're describing is a tundra environment; if no month averages above 10C, that is the definition of a tundra climate. The problem with this is not that it's necessarily uninhabitable. Tundra climates have no growing season, however, so agriculture is out, and wildlife is sparse enough that your population will have to be extremely scattered to feed itself: this is bad for civilization. Northern Canada is an excellent example: even with modern technology, all of Canada above 60N latitude holds just a hundred thousand people. $\endgroup$ – Palarran Jan 29 '17 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ To the close-voter: A question can still have a real-world basis and be about building a fictional world, keeping this on-topic. Relevant meta discussions here and here. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Jan 29 '17 at 23:03

10 Answers 10


The virtue of animal life as food is that it can eat plants elsewhere and then travel to the cold area for some reason.

Keep in mind that liquid water can't be colder than zero degrees Celsius (or zero degrees Fahrenheit if it is salt water) and that large bodies of water have currents that keep it warmer than it would be if it was only exposed to local surface temperatures.

Similarly, you don't have to get that far beneath the permafrost to reach a natural ground temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit (and warmer as you get deeper).

Another possibility is that the locals could rely on plants grown in some more hospitable micro-environment such as fungi from caves, plant life around geothermal hot springs, sheltered slot canyons, or man-made green houses.

I'd also caution against falling into the trope of entire planets that have only a single ecosystem or climate, and places that have no seasonal variation.

For example, many desert ecosystems have plants evolved to get all of the water and growth that they need during the handful of days each year that it rains, while going dormant most of the time. A cold environment that receives warm chinook-like winds a few weeks a year could have a similarly compressed growing season during which local fauna store up nutrients until the next respite from the cold.

  • $\begingroup$ Rejected an edit wrongly claiming that zero degrees F is equal to -1.8 degrees C. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jan 31 '18 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ zero degree F is indeed much lower than -1.8 degree C. It is also incorrect as the freezing temperature of ocean salt water, while -1.8 degree C is generally the temperature given for it. Which was what the edit claimed in the first place, not that the two temperatures were equal. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jan 31 '18 at 10:19

Most societies (to my knowledge) that live in a region under constant or almost constant tundra usually primarily eat whatever meat they come across, usually animals such as reindeer, whales, seals, fish and birds. Some plant-life is eaten, such as wild berries and seaweed but its usually whatever they can find.

Any society in this region would be primarily hunter-gatherer as mass agriculture isn't possible. If there are really good trading routes (unlikely due to extreme weather & temperatures), then they could also enjoy some imported goods.


tl;dr: Green houses and/or hardy plants.

Note: When I first answered, I missed your mention of Celsius. I was thinking -5 to 10 degrees F, which is even colder. This realization makes what you want even easier. There are edible garden plants which can survive the temperature range you specify just fine. I have edited the answer with this updated point of view. Sorry if my changes cause any confusion.

Some people do maintain gardens through the winter. You just need a hardy plant and to help it along. Your people could grow kale in small greenhouses. A horizontal window is all you really need for this, or even just a layer of normal clear plastic-wrap used on left-over food. A window can even be propped up by the snow itself. All you need to do is keep this small space above freezing. With the right plants, even if it gets below freezing they won't necessarily die. Keeping it almost always above freezing also provides the added benefit that you now have a good source of water too, for both you and the plant; just toss snow in there and let it melt.

Do a Google search for winter gardening advice. I typically do one like "Best crops for winter garden". Lots of the articles will just suggest lists of plants and how to care for them, but some actually specify temperature ranges below which you should expect the plants to die.

For example, at growveg.com Best Vegetables to Grow in Winter, we see:

But I have learned this truth about growing winter vegetables the hard way: Grow only as much as you can protect from the elements, because that's the essence of the task. Where I live, winter temperatures occasionally drop below 0°F (-18°C), with several significant snows and winds that howl for days at a time. Spinach resting in a cold frame with a tempered glass lid (made from an old shower door) scarcely know what's happening, and the same goes for onions snug inside a sturdy tunnel covered with heavy-duty row cover (garden fleece) and an old quilt.

And from Aggie Horticulture, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M System:

In general, a frost (31-33 degrees F.) will kill beans, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peas, pepper, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and watermelon.

Colder temperatures (26-31 degrees F.) may burn foliage but will not kill broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, mustard, onion, radish, and turnip.

The real cold weather champs are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots, collards, kale, parsley, and spinach.

26 degrees F = -3 degrees C. Assuming the "cold weather champs" listed above will fare better than the ones in its previous paragraph, that provides a small list of crops that should survive even at -5 C *without any special greenhouse or other intervention." So, with a simple greenhouse, or better, you should be able to keep some of your crops alive even below -5 C, possibly even down to -20C or -30C, more if you provide enough heat inside it.

Note that even if a plant does not die that does not necessarily mean that it is still growing, or growing well, at a given temperature. If you grow kale, even if it does not die at -5C it might not grow a reasonable amount until the temperature gets back up to 5-10C or until you warm it.

If you design this with solar heaters, it will be even easier and warmer.

If your temperature gets down below -5C a lot and your diet is primarily plant based, then you will need to cover a lot of land like this. The amount might seem infeasible to you or I, but if it is necessary to survive then people will do it.

It could be difficult but not impossible. If I were given 1 roll of food plastic-wrap in an environment like you specified, I could probably cover enough kale to keep me going for a long time.

I think people often underestimate the effect a simple window can have. When we go out in the winter and get into our car on a very cold day, it still feels very cold in the car but what you might not realize is it's still much warmer than outside the car, assuming the windows are not covered by snow or other impediment. If a car is properly oriented to maximize sun exposure to the windows, it can be below freezing out but warm enough in the car to not need a coat.

A properly designed greenhouse with all the best fixtures, such as multi-pane glass, good light-absorbing material inside to maximize the heating, and circled by passive solar heaters, could easily raise your temperatures a lot.

Source of information note cited: Experience. I have melted snow in ways similar to this specifically to get water from it. I have friends who grow kale through the winter. Usually at least three to four months of the year where I am is much colder than you specify; we consider it a warm day if it reaches the mid-point in your range. Also, I have made a solar heater using nothing but plastic wrap, cardboard, duct-tape, the screen from a door, and a little bit of wood, and even a small crude device like I made noticeably raises the temperature inside it.

If you want a more fantastical, outside-the-box approach, you could suggest that cold-weather trees are so prevalent in your area that people are wasteful with their wood use. People burn long-term fires which rage for months at a time and provide enough heat to grow crops.

This practice does not need to be sustainable, perhaps a note in your story that this is a new practice which is deforesting the area, but this is the time that the story is set in. Or maybe it is sustainable because you have either abnormally fast growing trees or very few people.

  • $\begingroup$ My only thought on this is the GLOBAL world that this region exists in. Hotboxing makes less sense if the whole continent/world is frozen... where would the higher temp flora come from... ...now they COULD have been cultured from colder weather flora and grown to be greenhouse dependent... but that would need to be clear in the narrative it it would be an obvious hole. $\endgroup$ – OhkaBaka Jan 30 '18 at 18:14

The animals that would be available for consumption would majorly depend on the environment you build and how futuristic/survival you want to make it. There are ways you could do agriculture also, but it would require some technology. Despite the ground being frozen, a green house would be possible similar to that like in the Martian. The only issue would be that the characters would need to find a way to suspend/raise the soil up so that it doesn't mix with the frozen ground or find a way to soften the ground using fire/heat (where technology would definitely need to play a factor since a constant fire could end up causing damage to tarp used). Also, just because this is a tundra, doesn't make it devoid of any plant life. It could be potentially possible to create your own crops of local plants but again, you would need to find a way to super heat the soil enough to dig and plant and grow.

If this is fairly futuristic, you can always add replicators like in star trek, have the ability to cultivate clone animals for meat or a high tech futuristic green house.

Kind of hard to really speculate what could be done without knowing the level of technology available and how the society got there, if that is part of the plot.


I would look into the indigenous cultures of the northern world for direction. The inuit for example, eat sea mammals like walrus, seal and whale as a large portion of the diet.


How about they eat things they dig up? I can think some delicious things to dig up and eat in the tundra.

1: Mummy meat. Frozen mammoths found in the tundra have meat that is still edible. I can imagine these folks prospecting for likely sites and digging for buried frozen giant animals. Once they score one they live off it for weeks. You might have to assert that some of these mummies contain muktuk or your folks are going to get scurvy. You are not going to have a giant population center based on mummy meat but it is plausible that might support small groups.

2: Edible petrochemicals. This is more of a stretch. Obviously there are huge amounts of coal and oil in the ground. As found, we cannot eat them (I do not think). But coal can be processed into edible "margarine"; this was done by the Germans during WW2. Maybe sometimes this just happens? Your folks could find strata of fat in the ground when they dig. Maybe the coal has spontaneously turned or maybe again from ancient creatures - this along the lines of gravlax or hakarl https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A1karl.

Or the people could have home Fischer-Tropsch reactors to process coal into grease. Or they could have microbes that anaerobically digest the coal and release ethanol - certainly there are microbes that eat petrochemicals so why not? There is good caloric value in ethanol and it makes the mummy meat taste better.

3: Snow algae. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/wonderful-things-dont-eat-the-pink-snow/ Different sorts of algae can live in snow. Supposedly it is a laxative but lots of vegetable foods are unless you cook them. If your folks have coal they have fire. They can have snow processors and cook it down into spicy algae cakes.

  • $\begingroup$ Ooh! I like the algae farming idea for a bronze/iron age culture. very "modern" seeming, but utterly achievable by earlier cultures (assuming they could find a way to get past eating pond scum without Whole Foods telling them it was "healthy"). $\endgroup$ – OhkaBaka Jan 30 '18 at 18:26

There are some native plants that grow in tundras and would be usable, the problem is finding out which ones work. Fortunately Quite a while ago on an alternate history forum a member created an Inuit civilization that relied primarily on these plants with only a small twist or two. It's called a Land of Ice and Mice, the link is for the tv tropes page. The first few pages focus almost solely on food and possible agriculture. I'd definitely recommend it as a reference material.


you describe a mixed tundra and taiga environment. Without modern technology the cultures that survive in those places are the Inuit and Samis. Which you focus on will depend on your landscape. In either case they rely on meat heavy diets, a general lack of metal tools (outside trade and meteorites), and a nomadic lifestyle.

The more forest there is the more it will favor the Sami lifestyle. The Sami do fishing whenever possible but are more heavily reliant on a herd animal, basically pastoralism. Such societies have to be nomadic to get enough forage or their animals.

the sparser the forests, the more an Inuit type culture will dominate, with a heavy focus on fishing and hunting marine mammals, The lack of timber makes building more difficult and they are more reliant on marine mammals for fuel. Because of this population centers are more focused around the coast.


Look to the oceans There may be plants growing below the icy waters... volcanic activity and warm currents might make for a very green ecosystem below the waves... kelp farming for greens would be viable.

Look to the trees Also you mentioned trees... pine nuts and maple syrup and bamboo shoots... non-fruited trees provide food for us already, in a truly fantasy world, designing a tree that provides sustenance while remaining "hearty" shouldn't be an issue.

Look in the dirt Green plants not so much, but fungi and tubers growing under the earth can get you starches and vitamins.


Meat, fat, and berries. I'd look no further than to what our Inuits of today eat. Oddly enough, this does come with a bit of a biological evolution...there is very little carbohydrates in these peoples diets as they really are not available. Instead, the body relies heavily on fat intake and convert this into the energy required. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuit_cuisine has a bit on it (honestly that page covers most of your question).

When carbohydrate intake is inadequate for total energy requirements, protein is broken down in the liver through gluconeogenesis and utilized as an energy source. Inuit studied in the 1970s were found to have abnormally large livers, presumably to assist in this process. Their urine volumes were also high, a result of additional urea which the body uses to purge waste products from gluconeogenesis.

A bit on gluconeogenesis here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluconeogenesis

Yes, this does mean outsiders will have an inherently harder time surviving here...people native to the region will likely have the biological traits needed.

I'd reduce to three key sources:

Berries are actually pretty prolific in the tundras. Alaska gardening: https://alaskamastergardener.community.uaf.edu/2015/08/04/berries-of-northwest-alaska/

Fat. Marine mammals have extremely high ratio's of fat to protect them from the cold. This fat becomes a humans key energy source. Whales and Seals are key sources for todays inuit

Meat. Compliment to above, under the marine mammals fat is a decent amount of meats, however fish also work in this category.


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