is located off the northern tip of Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada.
communities from which Bylot Island can be accessed are Pond
Inlet (Mittimatalik) and Nanisivik, both found on northern
Much of the 11,100 km² of Bylot Island is covered by high mountain
peaks and glaciers. These are the Byam Martin Mountains, which
form a part of the larger Arctic Cordillera extending from the
eastern margin of Baffin Island all the way to Ellesmere Island.
The remainder of Bylot Island, and in particular its southern
plain, are characterized by extensive low-elevation areas covered
by heterogeneous tundra vegetation.
Although our field research
covers the south plain of the island (1,600 km²), our
Base Camp is located in a large glacial valley at the southwest
end of the island (73°08’N,
80°00’W). About 10,000 years ago, this 70 km² valley,
was almost entirely covered with ice. Approximately 6,000
years ago the glacier started to retreat, leaving fine grained
wind-deposits and an accumulation of organic sediments to
form the soils in the valley bottom. Meanwhile, freeze-thaw
action worked in shaping the land to its present form.
Today, the valley bottom consists of an assemblage of tundra
polygons, thaw lakes and ponds. The water retaining capacity
of these topographical features and the poor drainage of
the underlying permafrost (layer of soil that is permanently
frozen) contribute to the formation of wetlands.
The vegetation found in these wetlands
is characterized by the presence of sedges (Water Sedge [Carex
aquatilis], White Cottongrass [Eriophorum scheuchzeri]
and Tall Cottongrass [Eriophorum angustifolium]), grasses
(Fisher’s Tundragrass [Dupontia fisheri], Polar
Grass [Arctagrostis latifolia] and Semaphore Grass [Pleuropogon
sabinei]) and many brown mosses species.
In contrast with the wetlands, dryer areas are found on slopes,
hills and elevated terraces surrounding the valley lowlands, as
well as on the rims surrounding tundra polygons. The better drained,
dryer soils of these habitats allows for distinct plant communities.
Common plants found in this habitat include forbs (Arctic Heather
[Cassiope tetragona], Mountain Avens [Dryas integrifolia],
Arctic Poppy [Papaver radicatum] and Mountain Sorrel
[Oxyria digyna]), grasses (Polar Grass [Arctagrostis
latifolia], Northern Foxtail [Alopecurus alpinus],
Bluegrass [Poa arctica] and Northern Wood Rush [Luzula
confusa]) and shrubs (Arctic Willow [Salix arctica]
and Bilberry [Vaccinium uliginosum]). These areas commonly
referred to as uplands, account for 90% of the south plain surface
whereas wetlands account for only 10% of it.
The wetlands of the south plain of Bylot
Island is a habitat of rare plant quality and productivity
for an Arctic environment. Benefiting from this “polar
oasis” are more than 160 species of plants, 19 mammal
species and 71 bird species. Considered as an important
site for many migratory birds, Bylot Island was declared
a Migratory Bird Sanctuary in 1965.
Amongst the migratory species taking advantage of the
lush wetland vegetation, the Greater Snow Geese (Chen
caerulescens atlantica) first caught the attention
of the project leaders in the late 1980’s. Indeed,
the south plain of Bylot Island holds one of the world’s
largest breeding colonies of Greater Snow Geese and the
wetlands of the Qarlikturvik valley represent their main
brood-rearing site on the island. With more than 100,000
birds passing the summer on Bylot, it is clear that geese
constitute the most abundant herbivores of the island.
In addition to the geese, other herbivores found on the island
are the Brown and Collared Lemmings (Lemmus sibiricus
and Discrostonyx torquatus), Arctic Hare (Lepus
arcticus), Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and Rock
Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus). The main terrestrial predators
on the island are the Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus),
the Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus),
the Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus),
the Glaucus Gull (Larus
hyperboreus), the Common Raven (Corvus corax) and
the Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca).
Established in 2001, Sirmilik
National Park encompasses most of Bylot Island, except for
a few pockets that are Inuit-owned lands. Covering an area of
22,000 km², this new park extends to the northern part of
Baffin Island and is Canada’s third largest national park.
Sirmilik, which means “place of glaciers” in Inuktitut,
certainly reflects the complex of glaciers and ice caps that cover
most of Bylot Island.