Nunavik: A Land, Its People See more of the Virtual Museum of Canada Introduction The Land The People Culture Accounts Gallery Site map Credits Français Inuktitut
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The Land



In Nunavik – a vast territory covering over half a million square kilometres – plants and animals have developed ways of adapting to seasonal extremes, a harsh climate and a demanding environment. This rich and complex ecosystem is also a land with resources that the Inuit people have been able to make use of, thanks to their powers of observation, a respect for nature and the heritage of ancestral knowledge.

Map of Nunavik

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. Three such occurrences – all of them originating in the heavens – will be examined here.

The following maps illustrate Nunavik’s various zones and natural divisions.

Map of tree line


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.

Map of ecozones


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.

Taiga Shield

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.


Arctic Cordillera

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.

Low Arctic

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.

High Arctic

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.


Map of permafrost


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.

The boundary between the continuous permafrost zone and the discontinuous permafrost zone corresponds roughly to the tree line.

Map of geology


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.

Map of bioclimatic domains


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.


Lichen-spruce forest (zone 7)
(Boreal zone / taiga subzone)


Low-density forest cover, dominated by black spruce with lichen understory.
Vegetation that survives in a harsh climate, with low precipitation and forest fires.

Forest tundra (zone 8)
(Boreal zone / forest tundra subzone)


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.


Shrub vegetation arctic tundra (zone 9)
(Arctic zone / Low Arctic subzone)


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.

Herbaceous arctic tundra (zone 10)
(Arctic zone / Low Arctic subzone)


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.



There are many natural phenomena in Nunavik, but three of them owe their existence to the heavens. From the violent impact of a meteorite to the glorious spectacle put on by particles borne by solar winds, here are three phenomena produced by heavenly forces.

Aerial photo of Pingualuit crater
Pingualuit Crater (aerial photo : Heiko Wittenborn)


Nearly 1.4 million years ago, a meteor made a colossal impact with the Earth, creating an immense circular crater, 3.4 km in diameter. Known as Pingualuit, meaning “where the land rises,” this crater became a lake with a depth of 267 m. Since the lake is fed exclusively by precipitation in the form of rain and snow, its water is one of the purest on the planet, with a salinity level of three parts per million. The lake does not seem to empty into any river or stream, and scientists have estimated that it takes 330 years to complete the natural cycle in which the lake’s water is entirely renewed. The crater is the chief attraction in the Parc national des Pingualuit.

Photo of Leaf Basin
Leaf Basin

Tides in the Leaf Basin

Reaching heights of up to 17 metres, the tides in the Leaf Basin, along with those in the Bay of Fundy, are the world’s highest. The tidal ebb and flow of seawater is a phenomenon caused by the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun. The Leaf River estuary, one of the largest in Nunavik, is a protected zone because of its rich marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as the beauty of its landscapes.

Photo of Aurora borealis
Aurora borealis

Aurora Borealis

The aurora borealis (arsaniit) is a luminous phenomenon characteristic of arctic regions. Also known as northern lights, the phenomenon is caused when charged particles originating from the Sun collide with elements in the magnetosphere, the zone around the Earth affected by the planet’s magnetic field. As the charged particles are carried down to lower altitudes, they come into contact with oxygen and nitrogen atoms and this produces luminous radiation in shades that range from red to green. This phenomenon, which is visible at night, takes place at altitudes of 100 to 1 000 km. From the end of summer to spring, Nunavik in its entirety offers ideal vantage points for observing the northern lights.



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