Global circulation models predict that the strongest and most rapid effects of global warming will take place at the highest latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Consistent with this prediction, the Ward Hunt Island region at the northern terrestrial limit of Arctic Canada is experiencing the onset of major environmental changes. This article provides a synthesis of research including new observations on the diverse geosystems/ecosystems of this coastal region of northern Ellesmere Island that extends to latitude 83.11° N (Cape Aldrich). The climate is extreme, with an average annual air temperature of -17.2 °C, similar to Antarctic regions such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The region is geologically distinct (the Pearya Terrane) and contains steep mountainous terrain intersected by deep fiords and fluvial valleys. Numerous glaciers flow into the valleys, fiords, and bays, and thick multi-year sea ice and ice shelves occur along the coast. These extreme ice features are currently undergoing rapid attrition. The polar desert landscape contains sparse, discontinuous patches of vegetation, including dense stands of the prostrate shrub Salix arctica (Artic willow) at some sites, and 37 species of vascular plants on Ward Hunt Island. Diverse aquatic ecosystems occur throughout the area, including meromictic, epishelf, and perennially ice-covered lakes. Many of these have responded strongly to climate shifts in the past and like other geosystems/ecosystems of the region are now sentinels of ongoing global climate change.
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Vol. 18 • No. 3