People at the tidal flats, Part 1: the landscape and development of Iqaluit’s coastline


Bright morning light shone on the sides of the buildings on Iqaluit’s coast. It was November, and the ice was beginning to form in the bay. The air was still, cancelled only by a grinding creaking noise coming from the small boat anchorage near the base of the breakwater. It was a front end loader, with a bucket large enough to pick up a small car, clearing ice blocks off the road. They were left there the night before by the spring tide, floated in and dropped to a height of 3 m. This is fairly normal.


Iqaluit’s coastline in Novermber, 2011. A large spring tide mixed with newly formed sea-ice in the bay created a ridge of ice pile-up at the highwater limit. City owned front end loaders came to clear it away quickly. Dealing with infrastructure at the coast here requires a change of perspective.

My name is Scott Hatcher, and I was an M.Sc. student from Memorial University in the department of Geography. My project involved asking questions about coastal hazards in Iqaluit. The story above was from a visit I made in November, when the sea-ice was forming. In total I made four trips to Iqaluit in order to conduct geoscientific field work mapping the coastline of the city. The goal of the project was to model Iqaluit within a GIS to investigate the impact of projected climate change on coastal infrastructure in Iqaluit. There were three major threads running along the course of the project: (1) field mapping of the morphology and dynamics of the coast, (2) developing an increased understanding of dynamics in the coastal zone, and (3) modelling the topography and development along the coast under projected climate changes.

The city of Iqaluit sits at the southeastern end of Baffin Island, in Canada’s eastern Arctic. Annual temperatures range from -30 to +20 °C, and most of its precipitation falls as snow. Iqaluit sits in Koojesse Inlet, a small inlet off Frobisher Bay, which opens to the entrance to the Hudson strait between Baffin Island and Ungava Bay. Scraped bedrock hills surround the city, blocking its view, except out past Long Island where you can see to the other side of the bay.

Some explanation of terminology might help. Though there has been ample attention given to this area by scholars recently, some terms still evade concrete description. A hazard is here defined as a combination of risk and impact. The risk is a matter of probability, and specifically the probability of an impact. An impact, then, is an event that is outside the realm of the recoverable equilibrium of a coastal system. An example might help: an impact of sea-level rise will be the inundation of low-lying coastal areas. The rise of sea-level is outside the realm of responsive equilibrium for certain systems, and the risk is based on the elevation of that system and land uplift rate, or in other words how likely it is that sea-level will rise in that area. Vulnerability, then, represents the ability of certain impacts to cause damage, often in the context of a socioeconomic system. To adapt to these impacts would then refer to actions leveraging aspects of that system that diminish vulnerability to those impacts. Iqaluit (the city) might identify their vulnerability to sea-level rise due to the elevation and use of coastal infrastructure, and adapt by replacing the infrastructure with ones farther from the coast.

In these posts we’ll be asking questions about the hazards at Iqaluit’s coast based on projected climate change, and how the morphology of Koojesse Inlet affects these hazards. With this information the city can better shoot for the assessment of vulnerability (hazards’s ability to affect people), and adaptation responses (actions to limit the hazards’s ability to cause harm). In it we will see that the morphology plays a significant part in defining the coastal hazards of Iqaluit in many ways, and in sometimes surprising ways.

In this first post we’ll quickly explore Iqaluit from two perspectives: the physical landscape perspective, and the developmental perspective. The second post will describe the hazards on the coast, and the third will outline some points of discussion and draw some conclusions about the study.

 Physical Setting

Iqaluit’s coastline is divided into features. These features vary in shape, extent, and composition. The largest features are the extensive tidal flats that inhabit the intertidal zone directly off the beach. They are very low slope, have mostly mud and sand on their surface, and are cluttered with many large boulders. The second largest features are the beaches that line the upper shoreface, which are generally made of sand and pebbles, and don’t have the ridges you might see in southern beaches in Canada. Lastly, in between the long beaches of the bay, are the bedrock coastlines. These are steep sloping, glacially smoothed rock surfaces that plunge into the tidal flat surface abruptly. At high tide it is almost like sitting at the side of a swimming pool. At low tide, like sitting on a rock near a mud field.


The tidal flats, huge fields of mud, sand, and boulders, stretch out in front of the city (in the background).

The area around Iqaluit was a glaciated landscape, the large glaciers having receded from the area roughly 6500 years ago. In the process, things aligned to produce the landscape you see around you when you walk around the city. The city is sitting on an old proglacial (deposited when the glacier was nearby) outwash plain, which means there are large deposits of sand in sheets, surrounded by bedrock hills. The sands

underlying the city contain permafrost, which during the summer thaws to about 1 m below the surface. So this valley of sand between bedrock hills meets the ocean, where the scene changes dramatically (if you happen to arrive at low tide). Spread out from the beach are the tidal flats, in some cases over 1 km wide. On their surface you see mud and pebbles, layers of seaweed, and huge numbers of boulders. Offshore there are channels that get deeper, allowing ships to enter the harbour and deliver supplies. The large tides bring currents and water into the bay twice a day.

Processes within the bay involve sea-ice, tides, and waves. The sea-ice is impressive, forming to thicknesses greater than 1 m, and rises up and down by up to 12 m with the tides. This happens for the majority of the year, from about November to about June. Tides occur twice a day, and when they’re largest reach 12.3 m in the vertical (and about 8 m when at their smallest). Waves are limited here by Long Island just offshore. Strong southeast storms, however, have occurred in the fall, and have created storm waves that damage boats on the shore.


The sea-ice that develops on top of the tidal flats is impressive. It rides up and down with the tides, floating in a chaotic blanket of peaks (termed ‘ballycatters’). Person for scale.

Developmental setting

Iqaluit began modern development in 1942 as a U.S. Air force base. Part of a line of bases used for early detection sites for Russian missiles. The airbase employed many men who built buildings and an airstrip. Work at the base drew Inuit people to the base, where they established a small community nearby, which is now known as Apex.

Iqaluit’s population has been rising in the past 10 years. Industrial development, centralization of the Nunavut government, and wage employment has drawn Nunavut residents to the city. This pressure has had serious development implications. Large suburban areas have grown up on the outskirts of the city.

Iqaluit is a coastal city in many ways. No road links to the external world means everything (people or otherwise) comes via boat or airplane. Fishing is a strong tradition for the residents of Iqaluit. ‘Iqaluit’ actually means ‘place of fish’ in Inuktitut, which likely reflects the draw of Inuit to this coastal area to harvest Arctic Char. Today, the beaches near the city are lined with subsistence infrastructure in the form of gear sheds and seacans (re-purposed shipping containers) where fishers and hunters keep and maintain their equipment. Beyond this, there are significant government, residential, and cultural buildings along the backshore of the beach.


The beach at the main coastline of the city. Little differention exists between the beach and the buildings. Focused at the top of the beach are the city’s subsistence infrastructure – seacans and sheds used by the hunters and fishers of the traditional economy.

In the next post we’ll first examine what projected climatic changes might mean for local conditions in Iqaluit, followed by some results of the study on how these might translate into hazards on the coast for development and infrastructure.


One response to “People at the tidal flats, Part 1: the landscape and development of Iqaluit’s coastline

  1. Pingback: People at the tidal flats 2: Projected climate change and coastal hazards | Coastal Change Student Blog·

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