The Northwest Territories


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The western border of the Northwest Territories begins at the Mackenzie Delta, the watershed for the Mackenzie River, which carries water from five provinces to the Beaufort Sea. Water that drains from 20% of Canada's mainland passes through the 60-km wide delta, which cannot expand because it is bordered by high terrain on either side. As a result, the Mackenzie Delta contains over 25,000 lakes, most of which are less than 3-m deep. As the Mackenzie River conveys warmer water from the south, the resulting increase in temperature of the surrounding area has pushed the treeline in the west farther north than anywhere else in Canada.

Nothwest of the Mackenzie Delta, a flat, lake-filled coastal plain covers the peninsula, which borders Eskimo Lake and Liverpool Bay, providing ideal conditions for the formation of pingos. In fact, this plain is home to the highest concentration of pingos in the Northern Hemisphere. They are so numerous that Tuktoyaktuk, a small settlement situated on the northern coast of the peninsula, was carefully constructed around the pingos, coastline, and small inland lakes.

Approximately 140 km to the east, the Smoking Hills rise up along the coast of Franklin Bay. The adjoining Melville Hills run adjacent to the base of Parry Peninsula and stretch for some distance along Amundsen Gulf and down to Bluenose Lake. The Anderson and Horton rivers flow north and are the two main watersheds in the eastern Northwest Territories. The Canadian Shield originates in this area, east of Darnley Bay, where the terrain slopes gradually upwards and is covered with glacial deposits.

A vast expanse of tundra that was aptly described in Farley Mowat's award-winning novel, Lost in the Barrens, encompasses the entire mainland of the Northwest Territories. The Barren Lands form a triangle-shaped area; one border follows the mainland's northern coast to Hudson Bay; another runs along the treeline into Churchill; and the northwestern coast of Hudson Bay forms the base of the triangle. Covering 1,280,000 km2, the Barren Lands account for slightly more than 10% of Canada's total area! The topography of the region is irregular, with generally low elevation, and the ponds, lakes, and rivers are too numerous to count. Much of the land is wet in the summer, with a 10–30-cm layer of peat comprising the majority of the vegetation. Reindeer lichen, Cladina rangiferina, covers much of the rocky terrain, while sedges and dwarf shrubs grow along the drier ridge tops. Liverpool, Franklin, and Darnley bays form most of the northern mainland, where the coastal hills descend sharply to the sea.