In a few weeks, Spindrift racing will be in Canada to take part in the Transat Quebec - Saint Malo Race, on board the maxi trimaran Spindrift 2. This gives us an opportunity to explore the second largest country in the world and one of the most remote and wildest places on the planet: the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
The Canadian Arctic Archipelago, commonly known as the Arctic Archipelago, is a cluster of islands located north of mainland Canada in the High Arctic. With more than 36,000 islands and covering an area of 1.4million km2, it is the second largest archipelago in the world behind the Malay Archipelago in Indonesia. The Canadian Artic Archipelago is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Beaufort Sea to the west and Baffin Bay to the east. The latter forms the main border with Greenland. Channels separate the islands with depths ranging from 100m to about 600m. These channels are all frozen in winter apart from a few polynyas, areas of open water surrounded by sea ice. Polynyas are vitally important for overwintering marine mammals including walruses, narwals and belugas.
Until 1999, the Archipelago was part of the Northwest Territories, which is called Nunatsiaq meaning “beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the local Inuit language. The Inuit are the indigenous people who have lived in the High Arctic for more than 4000 years and are still the main population on the islands and live mainly in small coastal settlements. The Arctic islands are now part of the newest Canadian territory Nunavut, which means “our land” following an agreement with the Canadian government to give the Inuit of the central and eastern area a separate territory.
The islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago are divided in two groups: the larger islands covering more than 130 km2 and the smaller ones of less than 130 km2. Three of the ten biggest islands on the planet are found here. Baffin Island is the largest and is twice as big as the United Kingdom, but as it is so remote, it only has a population of 11,000 inhabitants! That’s a density of 0.02 people per km2 compared to 407 people per km2 in England.
Living conditions on the islands are challenging as it has a mainly polar climate with two main seasons - winter and summer. Winters are long with no sunlight at all in the most northern area of the archipelago and the extreme temperatures can be as low as -50°C. Summers are short and temperatures are just high enough to melt the frozen soil and allow animals to feed. A few types of mammal live on the islands, mainly muskox, a type of furry cow, foxes, caribou and polar bears. Except in mountainous areas, the main type of habitat is tundra, treeless plains characterised by low vegetation like moss, heath and lichen.
On the eastern side of the archipelago, the landscape is mountainous with the highest peaks over 2000m. This area features some of the largest glaciers in Canada as well as many ice caps that cover some 146,000 km2 representing a third of the world’s volume of land ice (excluding the ice sheets found in Antarctica and Greenland).
The beautiful frozen landscape of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is changing fast due to climate change. The surface of Arctic sea ice is reducing and glaciers are retreating and thinning in a dramatic way especially over the last ten years.
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One of the consequences of the disappearing ice is that it is now easier to sail through the Northwest Passage even in late summer. The Northwest Passage is a strategical seaway connecting the North Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean.
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Other consequences are less positive including the loss of habitat for local wildlife such as polar bears, one of the main species affected by the disappearing sea ice.
The Canadian Arctic Archipelago deserves to be better known and protected because of its great importance for the local population and wildlife but also because the melting of the Arctic sea ice increases the amount of freshwater in the Atlantic ocean, further intensifying the effect of global warming – and that affects us all.