Much of Canada’s Water Flows North
Did you know that if you sculpted a clay model of Canada's landscape and then simulated precipitation by sprinkling water on it, more than half of the water would drain toward Canada's North? In fact, two of Canada's five main watersheds drain northward — the Arctic and the Hudson Bay watersheds.
Watersheds are huge areas of land that collect precipitation, such as rain and snow, and then channel it through water systems, such as rivers and streams. Eventually most of the water ends up in our oceans. Each of these main watersheds is named for the areas into which they drain: the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans and Hudson Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Where is Canada’s North?
According to Environment Canada, the "North" includes our eight northernmost terrestrial ecozones: the Arctic Cordillera, the Northern Arctic, the Southern Arctic, the Hudson Plains, the Taiga Shield, the Taiga Plains, the Taiga Cordillera, and the Boreal Cordillera. In this unit, we view all the area encompassed by these ecozones as "Canada's North."
Where are Northern Waters Located?
We consider "northern waters" to include:
- the Arctic Ocean;
- freshwater systems located in and that run through the eight northern terrestrial ecozones; and
- the three northern marine ecozones (Arctic Basin, Arctic Archipelago, Northwest Atlantic).
Explore Northern Marine Ecozones
Almost all northern watersheds will eventually spill into one of our three northern marine ecozones.
The Arctic Archipelago Marine Ecozone
This large marine area extends from Alaska to Greenland and includes Hudson and James Bays — an area where many famous explorers sought the Northwest Passage. Bays, fjords, channels, straits, sounds and gulfs surround hundreds of islands found in this region, such as the Queen Elizabeth Islands and Baffin Island. You might see everything from high cliffs and hanging glaciers to rolling plains along the coasts. Sea ice covers nearly the entire water surface during winter although you may see "polynyas" — areas of open water created by currents and upwellings.
Cold temperatures and nearly constant ice cover limit the variety and abundance of life above the water, but where rivers meet the ocean (an area called an estuary) they share a bounty of nutrients with the ocean life gathered there and beyond. Plankton (tiny plants and animals) and small crustaceans feed fish such as the Arctic cod. This small fish, about 30 centimetres in length, is the main food for many varieties of marine mammals, such as the ringed, bearded and harp seals, beluga whales and narwhals. In fact, life in Canadian Arctic waters is amazingly abundant and diverse — home to about one quarter of Canada’s freshwater and almost a third of our marine fish species. Above the water, polar bears wander the floating pack ice to hunt seals and move to the coast in summer, waiting for the next freeze-up to get back out to feed. During brief summer seasons, migrating birds breed by the millions. Tundra swans, loons, geese, ducks, shorebirds, gulls, jaegers, Arctic terns and fulmars spend summers in the coastal estuaries and mud flats.
The Arctic Basin Marine Ecozone
About 90 percent of this ecozone, which includes the Beaufort Sea and extends northward to the northern edge of Ellesmere Island, is covered by a floating ice layer up to two metres thick all year round. This ice layer continually drifts and rotates around the North Pole in a counterclockwise direction. The waters below plunge to depths of up to 3,600 metres.
Despite the extreme cold, there is life above and below the ice — it’s just not very plentiful. You might see polar bears, walrus, and harp and ringed seals above the ice. Most birds are migratory, but the hardy ivory gull stays year-round near open water. Below the ice, about 130 species of fish make this area home, including the Arctic cod, ogac, Arctic char, sculpin, eelpout and the snailfish. Beluga whales and narwhals can also be found here. Bottom dwellers include anemones, clams, sea worms and sea stars. Plants are limited to algae (that can grow on ice!) and phytoplankton. Generally, life is sparse compared with warmer waters, and little is known about most of these creatures.
The Northwest Atlantic Marine Ecozone
Many of the rivers in eastern Quebec, Labrador and the Maritimes flow into this ecozone. This region includes part of the ocean east of Baffin Island, Hudson Strait, Ungava Bay, the Labrador Coast, and parts of the Newfoundland and Gulf of St. Lawrence coasts. While only a portion of this ecozone is in the area we consider the "North," the overall region is richer and more productive than other northern marine areas. In fact, the southern part of this ecozone includes the Grand Banks, one of the most productive biologically diverse marine areas in the world. Bottom-dwelling communities are rich with invertebrates, such as barnacles, sea stars, crabs, lobster, sponges, scallops, clams and jellyfish. Fish include redfish, herring, silver hake, turbot and the once-common northern cod. You may see such marine mammals as harbour seals, grey seals, harbour porpoises, dolphins and whales (northern bottlenose, blue, pilot, beluga, fin, minke and humpback). There are an incredible number and variety of seabirds here, too. Many only come ashore to find mates. Among them are fulmars, murres, shearwaters and the Atlantic puffin.
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