Nomadism as a natural response to extreme environments

The rapid urbanization of the planet stems from a strong vested interest in sedentary settlement. This creates a concentration of population, resources and energy that is broadly unsustainable. As a result, we today grapple with the task of designing a sedentary dwelling to best integrate within the fluctuating environmental conditions a single location experiences.

Another strategy is to move away from extreme environmental conditions to other areas where conditions are more suited. We see countless species of animals using this strategy for survival. The nomadic tendencies of water bird native to the South Australian Salt Lakes show what has been termed as extreme nomadism – where individuals have been known to move up to 2,500km in less than two and half days in search of better conditions. This behavior response is a critical for survival in such a harsh, arid and temporally fluctuating climate. What is not known about these birds is the method they use to determine where to migrate – they seemingly have some innate knowledge of ephermal blossoming of favorable conditions thousands of kilometers away.


The Australian Banded Stilt –



Summary of movement trajectories from deployment 1 (at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre South, March 2012), 2 (Lake Harry, April 2013) and 3 (Morella Basin at the Coorong, April 2013). Each individual is shown by a different colour. Shown separately are: (a) long-distance flights towards the inland following inland rainfall; (b) flights from the inland to coastal refugia as arid-zone wetlands dried; (c) longitudinal flights between South Australia and Western Australia by two individuals; (d) flights between various coastal refuge sites during dry periods.


We know that Zebras native to the Okavango delta in Southern Africa follow the subtle environmental changes that they perceive around them – humidity, rainfall, temperature and the like. This allows them to navigate long migrations when the Okavango delta dries up and conditions become unfavorable. The migration itself is not a journey that is memorized by the Zebras, rather a feedback loop exists within the Zebra’s senses. By constantly analyzing the surrounding environmental cues, the Zebras can increase their odds of survival by maximizing the time spent in favorable conditions.


Satellite Image of the Okavango Delta, Botswana –


The world’s largest land migration occurs in Northern Canada and Alaska, undertaken by multiple different species of Caribou. Some Caribou species are sedentary, choosing to stay more localized and tolerate the extreme changes in environmental conditions. These species do not range far north, into the tundra. Only migratory species are able to exploit the food found in the tundra during the summer thaws. This is offset by the great deal of energy that they expend to undertake this journey, which can be up to 5,000 km each year. Ecologically speaking, there is a delicate balance between these two conditions – to stay or to go. If one survival strategy is over utilized in the environment, then the benefit of the alternative increases. The natural world exhibits delicate responses to environment and behavior of other members of a species as a survival strategy in extreme environments.


Caribou of Northern Canada undergo the world’s greatest overland migration – in some cases individuals can travel more than 5,000km each season. –


Advisory Committee for Cooperation on Wildlife Management. 2014. Taking Care of Caribou: the Movements of satellite-collared cow caribou in the Northwest Territories and portions of Nunavut, based on data collected between 1985 and 2007 – from Cape Bathurst, Bluenose-West, and Bluenose-East barren-ground caribou herds management plan. Yellowknife, NT.

Nature demonstrates that a highly successful strategy to cope with environmental change is to move to greener pastures. However the vast majority of people today live in spaces that are designed to maintain a uniform environment over the entire year. By looking at both natural and unnatural, existing and conceptual examples, we can find that a nomadic occupation of space has great benefits in extreme environments, on a continental scale, local scale or even an internal scale. What happens when you challenge the idea of a static dwelling that needs to fight against the surrounding environment?

How can architectural design engage with the nomadic? Beyond the tents and structures used by a nomadic people, the architecture of the nomad is far more integrated and intertwined with the changes occurring in the surrounding environment. Two good examples of architecture engaging with are Francesco Beilifore’s migration totems, and Samantha Lee’s Arctic Supercomputer. Francesco proposes a network of pheromone-loaded totems, used to redirect and control the migration of caribou across the Arctic tundra, away from human habitation. He hacks the natural system that controls the largest land migration on earth – but not without warning, as he speculates on the potential for hunters to hack into the artificial system for their own benefit.


A contemporary scent emitting totem sits in the landscape as infrastructure for an artificial migration. – Territorial Pissing, AA Unknown Fields Division, Francesco Belifore


A campsite territory is formed from swirling plumes of pancakes, bug-spray, trash, caramel, WD-40, sweat and cosmetics – Territorial Pissing, AA Unknown Fields Division, Francesco Belifore



When the majority of the system lies dormant, the inuit residents of Kaktovik survey the land through observations. – Sedna, the world’s fastest landscape supercomputer, Samantha Lee, AA Unknown Fields Division

Samantha Lee imagines a supercomputer for calculating the environmental risk of resource exploitation that becomes so complex that it becomes indistinguishable from the landscape that it models. The computer is the landscape – read and analysed through precise observations throughout the year, mining and drilling decisions are made based on the interpretations of micro-environmental fluctuations, much like the Zebra of the Okavango Delta. Both have imagined a world in which architecture is intrinsically attached to the subtle, and not so subtle variations perceptible in the environment around us. There are, however, people still living in this world today.


The swarming processing power of snow geese migrations have been used to run oil futures algorithms, where small ripples in the system are amplified to create changes in flocking permutations. – Sedna, the world’s fastest landscape supercomputer, Samantha Lee, AA Unknown Fields Division

The Berber people of Morocco have lived a nomadic lifestyle for thousands of years. They graze their sheep and goats in the arid foothills of the Atlas Mountains during the winter, while conditions are mild and the sun gentle. When the desert begins to become warmer, the sun more extreme, they venture up into the mountains in search of cooler climates and grazing field for the livestock. This nomadic movement, coupled with innovative building technologies, such as the camel hair tents they use, has led the general success of the lifestyle in the face of extreme climatic conditions. Despite this, the Berber people are succumbing to ever increasing social and political pressure to condense and settle in urban centers. It is not the environmental challenges of this lifestyle that is causing the Berber people to disappear, rather is it that there is little social acceptance for this lifestyle.


Berber people undertaking an annual migration to the higher ground of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco –


Annual Berber migrations occur between the arid lowlands of the Atlas mountains, bordering on the Sahara Desert, to the cooler, valleys nestled in the mountains themselves. Socio-political pressure is driving more and more Berbers from the nomadic way of life. – image – altered from Google maps

Most societies today make the decision to settle and battle the elements as best they can. But by thinking about the term ‘settlement’ more loosely, we can begin to challenge current architectural paradigms, and perhaps find new strategies for building habitations in extreme environments.




Links and Resources:

Extreme Nomadism of Desert Waterbirds:

D. Pedler, R. F. H. Ribot, A. T. D. Bennett, 2014. Extreme Nomadism in desert waterbirds; flights of the banded stilt. Biology Letters, 10:10.

Zebra migration in the Okavango Delta:

Collins, Katie, “Zebra migration in the Okavango Delta predicted by Nasa satellites”,, august 2013, accessed at:

Bartlam-Brooks, H. L. A., P. S. A. Beck, G. Bohrer, and S. Harris (2013), In search of greener pastures: Using satellite images to predict the effects of environmental change on zebra migration, J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci., 118,1427–1437, doi:10.1002/jgrg.20096.

Caribou Migrations:

Frank L. Miller, Samuel J. Barry, Wndy A. Calvert, 2005, ‘Sea-ice crossings by caribou in the south-central Canadian Arctic Archipelago and their ecological importance’, Rangifer, 25:16.

Unknown Fields Division:

Berber Nomadism:

Southam, Hazel, “Morocco’s last Berbers on their 4,000-year-old annual migration: a tradition that is now under threat”, The Independent, 2012, accessed from:

Martin, R., Müller, B., Linstädter, A., Frank, K. (2014):
How much climate change can pastoral livelihoods tolerate? Modelling rangeland use and evaluating risk. Global Environmental Change 24, 183–192.


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