Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
A large snowdrift formed in Canada's Arctic.

Where it’s cool to be cool

Remote and sparsely populated by humans, the Arctic has, historically, been of interest primarily to adventurers endeavouring to reach the North Pole and sea merchants trying to discover the Northwest Passage. Common citizens were barely aware of its existence. All that has changed in recent decades, however, as the effects of climate change have led to a newfound appreciation of the Arctic’s ecological vulnerability.

What makes up the Arctic ecozone

The Arctic ecozone in this virtual exhibit encompasses several northern regions, including tundra and taiga. Northernmost in this ecozone, and the country, is the rugged and isolated Arctic Cordillera. Found along the most northerly east coast of Canada, it stretches from Ellesmere and Baffin islands all the way to northern Labrador. The landscape here is mainly glaciers, high mountains and broad valleys. Some of the highest peaks in the country are in this ecozone.

To the southwest, a large swath of tundra extends across parts of northern Quebec, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alaska. This is the coldest and driest region of Canada, and some of the more northern areas are recognized as Arctic desert.

South of the treeline is the taiga, coniferous evergreen forests of subarctic land. Large areas of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and northern Quebec are taiga, as is the southwestern region of Nunavut. All the remaining provinces, except Ontario and the Maritimes, have taiga in their northern regions. Sections of the Canadian Shield are found here, along with areas of bog.

The southernmost region in the Arctic ecozone is the Hudson Plains. This includes the northern sections of Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, which border the southern reaches of Hudson Bay.

Arctic winters are long, with little or no sunlight in some areas for long periods of time and subzero temperatures. Conversely, summers are brief, and in the more northerly regions, there are days when the sun doesn’t set.

Why conservation matters for the organisms that call the Arctic home

Iconic and impressive, the polar bear inhabits the Arctic ecozone alongside a surprising wealth of organisms.

The grizzly bear and the black bear range through the Arctic along with such large mammals as the barren ground caribou, wood bison and muskox. Smaller animals, such as the Arctic hare and Arctic fox, and birds, such as the rock ptarmigan and snowy owl, thrive here.

Diverse marine life exists too, including the narwhal, beluga, walrus, a variety of seals and the prized Arctic char. Plant life ranges from black spruce and purple saxifrage to various mosses and lichens, all evolved to withstand the challenging environment.

The interdependence between these organisms and the humans who rely on them is a delicate balance, and climate change is disrupting that. Large tracts of sea ice are vital for the polar bear to hunt seals — and are just as vital for Inuit hunters doing the same.

With less of the ocean freezing every year, however, hunting conditions are becoming more difficult, and the polar bear must spend more time inland waiting for freeze-up. Traditional hunters are facing some tough decisions on how to feed their families and are also feeling the pressure of changing cultural attitudes regarding the fur trade and the seal hunt.

The Arctic, once remote and unknown to many, is now firmly in the spotlight.