Physical Geography and Geology
The major islands in the eastern Arctic (Baffin, Devon, Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg) are mountainous, with peaks over 2000 m. The higher land on these islands is commonly occupied by ICE CAPS that contain most (75%) of the glacier ice and the largest GLACIERS in Canada, and one-third of the volume of land ice worldwide, not including the ice found on Greenland and Antarctica. These highland areas were the major source area for the Innuitian ice sheet during the last GLACIATION. These eastern islands contain the northern extent of the Canadian SHIELD, which is covered in areas by fairly flat-lying Palaeozoic rocks. The northern and western regions, including most of the Queen Elizabeth Islands, consists of younger, heavily folded sedimentary rocks, producing mountains on Axel Heiberg and parts of Devon and Ellesmere Islands. The central and western islands are generally flat with low relief (less than 200 m), and consist of sedimentary rocks of the Arctic Platform.
This geological variety produces spectacular variations in scenery, with rugged mountains, steep-sided fiords, and high and low plains of various ages and rock types. The Shield areas likely contain mineral deposits (including gold and diamonds), while oil and natural gas deposits have been found in areas of sedimentary rocks, such as the Sverdrup Basin. Coal is also found in these areas, and was discovered by early European explorers.
Climate and Climate Change
By any measure, this is a truly polar environment. On the northern islands, night lasts three or four months in winter and day lasts the same period in summer. The average annual temperature may be as low as -20ºC in the north and -6ºC in southern Baffin Island, with extreme low temperatures in the order of -50ºC. In the high arctic islands, summer temperatures may rise above freezing for only one or two months. Annual precipitation is low, ranging from 400 mm on southern Baffin Island to less than 100 mm on central Ellesmere Island. The Queen Elizabeth Islands are a polar desert, with less than 150 mm of precipitation a year. The cold climate has led to the development of PERMAFROST, which underlies all of the land area and exceeds 550 m in thickness in many places. Only a thin (less than 1 m) active layer melts at the surface each summer.
Predicted CLIMATE CHANGE will occur earliest and most intensely in high-latitude areas, and changes have already been noticed in the High Arctic. Annual mean temperatures are predicted to increase by 3-7ºC over the coming century, with the greatest warming to occur in winter (as much as 14ºC). In addition to warmer winter temperatures, precipitation could increase greatly. Summer temperatures and precipitation are also expected to increase strongly.
Trees are absent on the archipelago, and the TUNDRA vegetation consists of dwarf shrubs, forbs, sedges and grasses, mosses and lichens. In the northern islands, woody plant species become less prominent, and vegetation is sparse except in some lowland areas (polar oases) where the microclimate is warmer and there is greater snow accumulation. There are only about 200 vascular plant species, 200-300 species each of bryophytes and lichens on the arctic islands. Many plant species are widespread and have a circumpolar distribution.
Only 19 species of land mammals live on the archipelago, generally in small numbers restricted to certain areas. The high arctic islands are home to Peary CARIBOU that are smaller and lighter in colour than the barren-ground caribou; they do not migrate like their mainland cousins. Other mammals in the archipelago include the MUSKOX, arctic fox, WOLF, LEMMING and arctic hare. Sixty-four species of birds spend the summer in the high arctic islands and only 6 species overwinter there. The surrounding seas are home to the POLAR BEAR, the WALRUS and various types of seal and whale, including the NARWHAL and the BELUGA.
Terrestrial arthropods are important components of the high-arctic tundra, and 381 species have been named from the archipelago: of these, 64% are insects, 20% are MITES and 12% are springtails. These proportions of known arthropods are notably different from southern Canadian ECOSYSTEMS where insects are 90%, mites are 6% and springtails are 1% of the total known species
The High Arctic has been occupied by the INUIT and their predecessors for most of the past 4000 years, and today they live in coastal settlements scattered throughout the islands. The most northerly community in Canada is GRISE FIORD on southern Ellesmere Island, which was created in 1953 when the Canadian government relocated people from Port Harrison (now Inukjuak), Qué. Ancient links with the Greenlandic people are still maintained. Evidence has been found of contact between the Vikings, who lived in Greenland during the Middle Ages, and the islands (see NORSE VOYAGES). The non-Inuit population is generally made up of government and military personnel in communities such as IQALUIT, CAMBRIDGE BAY, RESOLUTE and the military station at ALERT.
PETER ADAMS Rev: GREG H.R. HENRY
The seawaters of the Arctic Archipelago were first sighted by William BAFFIN, who sailed into Smith Sound and northern BAFFIN BAY in 1616 and who first recorded Jones Sound and Lancaster Sound, which is the eastern entrance to the NORTHWEST PASSAGE. In 1819 Sir William PARRY sailed through the west as far as McClure Strait, where he was stopped by ice. The Northwest Passage was finally sailed by Roald AMUNDSEN in 1903-06 and again by Sergeant HenryLARSEN of the RCMP in 1940-42 (west-east) and 1944 (east-west). The waters north of Baffin Bay, now known as Nares Strait, were explored from 1852 on.
Very little scientific OCEANOGRAPHY was done in the Arctic Islands until after the Second World War, although an excellent pioneer expedition under Otto SVERDRUP in 1898-1902 produced important geological and biological results. Danish expeditions and the US Coastguard vessel Marion in 1928 made oceanographic studies in Smith, Jones and Lancaster Sounds.
The depths of the channels range from less than 200 m to about 800 m in eastern Lancaster Sound. The most important sill (minimum) depths, related to water transport, are 140 m in Barrow Strait and 250 m in Nares Strait. The Continental Shelf varies from over 550 m in depth in the west and north to 200 m in the east. In spite of low tidal ranges, which decrease from east to west, tidal currents can be strong in certain narrow passages, such as BELLOT STRAIT, FURY AND HECLA STRAIT and Hell Gate.
The dominant water flow through the islands is from the Arctic Ocean southward through Nares Strait and eastward through Lancaster Sound and Fury and Hecla Strait. The first 2 currents flow into Baffin Bay and the latter into FOXE BASIN, HUDSON BAY and HUDSON STRAIT. The most recent estimate of the total transport of Arctic Ocean water through the islands is 2.1 million m3/s, but there is probably considerable annual variation. The depth and extent of the channels offer commercial possibilities (for submarine tankers) as well as some strategic concern (as an avenue of approach for submarines).
Ice cover, with an average thickness from 1.6 m to 2 m, is complete in winter throughout the archipelago, with the exception of several recurring polynyas (areas of open water surrounded by sea ice), the largest of which are in northern Baffin Bay and in the southeastern BEAUFORT SEA. These polynyas, which freeze late and thaw early, are a focus for marine and bird life. There is evidence of early human habitation, by the THULE and DORSET peoples, on the landmasses adjoining them.
Biologically, the waters of the archipelago are rich in mammals and birds (in summer) and poor in fishes. The plankton is typical of that of the upper 250 m of the Arctic Ocean.
Author M.J. DUNBAR, PETER ADAMS
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Polar Commission
The website for the Canadian Polar Commission. Check out the latest news and research initiatives in the polar region of North America. Click on "Northern Research Facilities" for an interactive map of facilities in Canada's North.
Sea Ice Climatic Atlas for the Northern Canadian Waters
A basic overview of factors affecting ice in the sea. Click on right side menu for related maps and charts. From Environment Canada.
Exploration of the Northwest Passage
An overview of European expeditions to Canada’s northern Arctic region from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. Brief bios, illustrations, maps, and other reference material. An Industry Canada website.
Arctic Institute of North America
The website for the Arctic Institute of North America. Offers an overview of projects related to the culture, economy, ecology, and geography of Canada's Arctic. Check out the online "Photographic Archives Collection." From the University of Calgary.
Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea
The website for the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Covers navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, and more. Search this site for data related to Canadian sovereignty issues.
Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada
This illustrated Parks Canada web site describes the ecology, geography and history of Quttinirpaaq National Park.
Search the extensive "Images Canada" site for historical images depicting the people and landscape of Canada’s Arctic.
An Archaeological Expedition to Kuukpak
Take a virtual archaeological expedition to Kuukpak. A website from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
A brief description and detailed map of Ellesmere Island. A University of Guelph website.
Find out about Nunavut's territorial parks, heritage rivers, and other special places. A Government of Nunavut website.
North Circumpolar Region
View a map of the Arctic region from a vantage point above the North Pole. From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas.
A Geological Map of the Arctic
View a circumpolar bedrock geology map of the Arctic. Also includes explanatory notes and list of contributors. From the Geological Survey of Canada. Note: a large PDF download.
Prince Patrick Island
A map and brief description of Prince Patrick Island. A University of Guelph website.
An overview of the physical, oceanographic, and ecological characteristics of the Hudson/Boothian Ecoregion in the Arctic. From the website for the North American Marine Protected Areas Network.
Major Northwest Passage Exeditions and Explorers
This site offers brief accounts of various European expeditions to North America in search of the Northwest Passage. From the website "Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage," Princeton University.
'Rapid' 2010 melt for Arctic ice - but no record
A 2010 BBC article about scientific studies focusing on variations in rate of melting of Arctic ice.
Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
See excerpts from Shelagh D. Grant's book that examines challenges to Canadian sovereignty over Arctic territory. From Google Books.
Join this virtual voyage through the legendary Northwest Passage for an up close view of the effects of global warming in the Canadian Arctic. Discover 26 video clips, 789 photos, 21 scientific articles, 150 entries in the mission leader's and SEDNA's logs, and 27 360-degree panoramic images. An NFB website.
Journal of Glaciology
This site offers free access to selected articles from the "Journal of Glaciology." From the International Glaciological Society.
Annual cycle of light in the Northern Arctic
A graphical representation of the annual cycle of light in the Northern Arctic. From the GRID-Arendal website. From the UNEP/GRID-Arendal website.
An illustrated website about archaeological research and prehistoric culture in the Canadian Arctic. From the University of Waterloo.
A superb online exhibit about the search for the Northwest Passage. Historic maps and images from books show how the Inuit assisted foreign led expeditions into the Canadian Arctic and how European explorers gradually accepted Inuit techniques of travel and survival. Contemporary maps show the lasting achievement of the expeditions: the mapping of the Canadian Arctic. From the Toronto Public Library.
Arctic Ocean Diversity Census of Marine Life
An international collaborative effort to inventory biodiversity in the Arctic sea ice, water column, and sea floor.
Take a helicopter flight over the Barnes ice cap, part of the visual tour of Southwest Baffin Island. From the website for the Tukilik Foundation.
This article offers a glimpse into scientific research and military activities centred around Canadian Forces Station Alert, located at the northern tip of the most northerly island in Canada's Arctic Archipelago. From “Canadian Geographic” magazine.
Excerpts from an illustrated diary that chronicles the activities of a Canadian scientific research group working on the Arctic sea ice at the northern most tip of our country. From Canada Science and Technology Museum.
Polar Imperative and Beyond
A lecture delivered by Shelagh Grant, recipient of the Lionel Gelber Prize for her book, "Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America." From the Munk Centre for Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region
This map depicts possible boundaries of maritime jurisdiction in the Arctic region. From International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University in the UK.
In this website you will find several animations designed and produced by the International Polar Foundation on different topics linked to the polar regions, the way our planet's climate functions, climate change and energy.
Arctic Oil and Gas
An illustrated feature on developing Arctic oil and gas resources from Natural Resources Canada.
Glossary of Water Management Terms
A glossary of terms related to pollutants found in the Canadian North. From the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
Bernier Of The North
A profile of explorer Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, whose vogages helped establish Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic region. From the Legion Magazine.
Ellesmere Island loses huge ice shelf
A 2008 news story about the breaking away of the Markham Ice Shelf from Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. From the canada.com website.
Check out the expedition blogs and multimedia clips at the website for Cape Farewell, an international organization that bring artists, scientists, and communicators together to raise awareness about climate change and related issues.
Science and Sovereignty
Watch a CBC News story about Canadian scientists working to define the boundaries of Canada's northern continental shelf.
The website for Arctic Mission, a scientific voyage through the Arctic’s fabled North-West Passage. Features interactive maps, videos, photos and written observations about the landscape, climate, and wildlife that inhabit this region. From the National Film Board.
Oceans North Canada
This website examines conservation strategies that address the impact of climate change in the Arctic. Programs include identification of marine conservation areas, land claims agreements, fisheries management plans, ecosystem studies, and related initiatives. Features maps and striking photographs of local landscapes.
Glossary: Arctic Climatology and Meteorology
A glossary of meteorological terms prepared for the Arctic Climatology Project Arctic Meteorology and Climate Atlas.
Check out Sikunews for daily coverage of the top stories around the circumpolar world. Search for news items about specific issues and locations in the Canadian Arctic.
State of the Arctic Coast 2010
A detailed, well-illustrated report that provides a comprehensive picture of the status and current and anticipated changes in the most sensitive Arctic coastal areas. Note: very large files.
Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
An interview with historian and professor Shelagh Grant about her book "Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America." From D&M Publishers.
Canada's Arctic Submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf
See an online copy of a report about Canada’s submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf concerning the boundaries of the outer continental shelves of Arctic states. From the Canadian Political Science Association.
Facebook: Arctic Kingdom
Share your thoughts about the latest news from recent tours of the Canadian Arctic. Many outstanding photographs of Arctic terrain on this site too.
Canadian High Arctic Research Station
This site highlights the cutting edge science and technology at work at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. From Science.gc.ca.
Canada, Russia will share Arctic riches, scientist predicts
A news story about the possibility of Canada gaining seabed rights to about 800,000 square kilometres of sub-surface territory in the Arctic. From the Ottawa Citizen.
Former N.W.T. commissioner dies at 95
A CBC News obituary for Gordon Robertson, an influential civil servant who was instrumental in shaping government policy in Canada's North.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...