Northern Arctic Ecozone

The Northern Arctic Ecozone is the coldest and driest landscape in the Arctic. In fact, it has been called the harshest environment in Canada! This polar desert comprises the non-mountainous portions of the Arctic Islands as well as the northernmost areas of Quebec. Vegetation and wildlife are scarce as organisms must be adapted to the cold, dry, and windy climate.

In fact, the climate is so cold and dry that this region is classified as a polar desert. The temperature averages below freezing year-round, with a mean annual temperature of -14C, and summer highs of only -1.5C in the southernmost locations! Winter temperatures can reach below -30C, which is well beyond the survival threshold for many plant species. Not only are these temperatures bitterly cold, but the mean annual precipitation is very low, ranging from 10–20 cm. This also greatly limits the diversity of plants and animals in the ecozone.

The Northern Arctic Ecozone covers about 1.5 million km2, which is equal to about one seventh of Canada's total land area. As a result of its large size, the landforms within this region are diverse. The western portion consists of lowland plains covered by morainal and marine deposits, interspersed by areas of exposed bedrock, while undulating rocky hills and plateaus are found in the eastern part of the ecozone. The northern islands are enclosed by ice year-round, but open water surrounds the more southerly islands in the summer. Permafrost is continuous throughout the region and can reach several hundred metres in depth! Cryosolic soils – soils that contain permanently frozen material and a mean temperature of 0°C – are dominant. The deep and continuous permafrost and the thin cryosolic soils make rooting and burrowing difficult, limiting vegetation, and preventing many invertebrates from inhabiting the area.
High winds and shallow soils in the Northern Arctic Ecozone make it very difficult for plants to attach and root. Vegetation is therefore sparse and dwarfed. Herbs and lichens inhabit the meadows, particularly behind rocks that provide shelter from the elements. Purple saxifrage, mountain avens, and arctic poppy are common, and arctic willow occurs when the limited moisture and nutrients allow for its growth. In contrast to the plateaus and open plains, the vegetation is extremely lush in the wetter areas of the coastal lowlands and in sheltered valleys, as well as on the banks of streams and rivers. In these areas, the spring melt results in abundant freshwater, which carries the nutrients necessary for plant growth. It is not unusual to see flowers, such as mountain sorrel, blooming amid the last bits of melting snow; these plants are adapted to take advantage of the short growing season.

Resilient animals, well adapted to the cold temperatures and limited resources, inhabit the Northern Arctic Ecozone. Most of the terrestrial vertebrates have thick fur and slow metabolisms, and spend the majority of their time in sheltered habitats, only venturing into the bitterly cold winds to search for food. Peary and Barren-ground caribou, muskox, wolves, arctic and red foxes, polar bears, arctic hares, and brown and collared lemmings are some of the area's inhabitants. Migratory birds such as snow geese, Canada geese, eider ducks, brant geese, and long-tailed ducks thrive in the wetlands created by the spring meltwater. The willow and rock ptarmigans and the snowy owl inhabit the northern Arctic year-round, but retreat to the southern part of the ecozone during the winter, where temperatures are milder. In general, the wildlife in this area inhabits only the eastern and western margins of this ecozone and not the central core, which is simply too cold and dry for survival.