Covering an area broadly equivalent to that of Spain and larger than that of California, Nunavik is an astoundingly vast and diverse land.
Its ecological zones are defined in terms of its geology, geography, climatic extremes and the presence of permafrost. Nunavik is also home to impressive natural phenomena.
The tree line is a transitional band between forest tundra and shrub vegetation arctic tundra.
Trees cannot develop beyond this limit, which is determined by factors such as the amount of summer warmth received, the depth of the permafrost’s active zone, the composition of the soil and drainage. Extremely cold and prolonged temperatures can freeze the sap inside a tree and kill it. Permafrost can prevent the establishment of a sufficiently deep root system for the necessary structural support. When the roots are too shallow, trees are much more susceptible to wind and erosion.
There are 20 major ecosystems in Canada, ecozones, fifteen of which are terrestrial and five are marine. Nunavik has four terrestrial ecozones. Ecozones are defined as regions of the Earth’s surface that represent distinct ecological units as a result of factors such as climate, relief features, soil, vegetation and the presence of water.
Climate: Subarctic continental
Precipitation: 175 mm to 200 mm/yr
Average daily temperature: January: -17.5°C to -27.5°C / July: 7.5°C to 17.5°C
Vegetation: Discontinuous forest carpeted with lichens. Black spruce dominates. Presence of alder, willow and larch groves in boggy areas.
Characteristic wildlife: Caribou, moose, wolf, snowshoe hare, arctic fox, black bear, wolverine. Walrus, bearded seal, ringed seal, harp seal, killer whale. Canada goose, common loon, red-throated loon, American tree sparrow, grey-cheeked thrush, arctic hoary redpoll.
Climate: Cold and arid
Precipitation: 200 mm to 300 mm/yr
Average daily temperature: January: -25.5°C to -35°C / July: 5°C
Vegetation: Rare at higher altitudes
Characteristic wildlife: Walrus, bearded seal, ringed seal, harp seal, beluga whale, killer whale. Common ringed plover, arctic hoary redpoll, snow bunting.
Climate: Arctic, long cold winters, short cool summers
Precipitation: 200 mm to 400 mm/yr
Average daily temperature: January: -30°C / July: 10°C
Vegetation: Tundra shrubs, dwarf birch, various willows, herbaceous plants, lichens.
Characteristic wildlife: Caribou, muskox, wolf, arctic fox, polar bear, arctic hare. Walrus, bearded seal, ringed seal, harp seal, beluga whale, killer whale, blue whale, bowhead whale. Canada goose, common loon, red-throated loon, greater snow goose, ptarmigan, snowy owl, snow bunting.
Climate: Very cold and very dry, very short summers
Precipitation: 100 mm to 200 mm/yr
Average daily temperature: January: -30°C to -35°C / July: 5°C to 10°C
Vegetation: Grasses and lichens.
Characteristic wildlife: Caribou, wolf, arctic fox, polar bear, arctic hare, Ungava lemming. Walrus, bearded seal, ringed seal, harp seal, beluga whale, killer whale, bowhead whale. Canada goose, red-throated loon, ptarmigan, snowy owl.
Permafrost is a climatic phenomenon defined as ground whose temperature remains below 0°C for a duration of at least 24 consecutive months. Permafrost is caused by cold climates that keep the mean annual temperature of the ground surface lower than 0°C.
Permafrost may remain present year-round under the active layer, that is, a layer of soil, rock or sediment that freezes and thaws each year. The thickness of this layer varies according to the season, but it generally has a thickness that can vary from 30cm to 4 meters. The boundary between the continuous permafrost zone and the discontinuous permafrost zone corresponds roughly to the tree line.
The land of Nunavik is divided into geological zones featuring some of the planet’s oldest bedrock, which has been worn for over two billion years by a succession of glaciation cycles, tectonic movement, volcanic activity and erosion.
The result is a varied landscape with mountain ranges and valleys, eskers (ridges of sediments deposited by glaciers as they move), cirques (valleys carved out by the eroding action of a glacier head) and a complex drainage system. The ecology of Nunavik is determined by these factors, combined with the presence of sea currents, weather systems and annual variations in sunshine.
Nunavik is divided into four bioclimatic domains. These domains reflect various types of plant life since they are defined by the distribution of vegetation in relation to climate and determined by soil condition, precipitation, relief features and disturbances such as forest fires and deforestation.
Characteristics: Low-density forest cover, dominated by black spruce with lichen understory. Vegetation that survives in a harsh climate, with low precipitation and forest fires.
Characteristics: Shrubby barrens with scattered forests, whose size is limited by forest fires and the presence of discontinuous permafrost. Black spruce populations reaching no more than 3 m in height. The northern limits of the domain correspond to the tree line.
Characteristics: Plant cover no higher than 2 m as a result of landforms and continuous permafrost. Presence of dwarf willows and birch, herbaceous plants, grass-like plants, mosses and lichens.
Characteristics: Scattered presence of small shrubs as a result of continuous permafrost and the harsh climate. Presence of sedges (carex and cotton grass), grasses, mosses and lichens, separated by stretches of bare ground.