Much of Quttinirpaaq’s vast landscape is dominated by glaciers and mountains that support limited biological productivity. The long, cold winters and brief, cool summers, along with low precipitation year-round, create polar desert conditions.
Some of the park’s lowland areas are remarkably lush for such high latitude. The Lake Hazen Basin, for example, experiences a warmer climate and is wetter than surrounding areas, supporting meadows of lush grasses and arctic flowers during the short summer season. In these thermal oases, Arctic hare congregate in groups of hundreds. Small herds of musk ox and Peary caribou, a few Arctic wolves, Arctic foxes, and about 30 species of migratory birds thrive. The park also contains freshwater and marine ecosystems that support biological communities and physical processes unique to the High Arctic environment.
A large portion of the park — including the 36% of the park that is covered by glaciers and ice caps — supports limited numbers and diversity of living organisms. There are extensive ice fields up to 900 metres thick, with nunatait (small mountains, isolated from main mountains and completely surrounded by an ice field) reaching to over 2,500 metres. Mount Barbeau, at 2,616 metres, is the highest peak in eastern North America.
Continuous permafrost underlies the park. The active layer in the glacier-free area is shallow, limiting plant growth and soil development. Poor soils combined with cool temperatures limit most vegetation cover to areas with adequate moisture, resulting in patchy concentrations of hummocky tundra vegetation and wet tundra meadows, which are found in places where surface moisture cannot drain away. In the mountainous areas, the dominant vegetation is cold-hardy plants such as sedges, grasses, mosses, and lichens.
In the oasis-like Lake Hazen Basin, the habitat is richer because of the increased availability of water from glacial run-off, the warmer climate in the shelter of the southfacing mountains, and the impact of the West Greenland Current. The Lake Hazen Basin is a unique and important ecosystem and is the best-known area of the park. Areas of wet tundra meadows are extensive, resulting in increased abundance and diversity of plants and wildlife.
Characteristic wildlife includes aquatic bird species like snow geese, red-throated loons, and common eider ducks, as well as land birds such as rock ptarmigan, snow bunting, ruddy turnstone, and ringed plover. Land mammals include Arctic hare, lemming, ermine, Arctic fox, Arctic wolf, muskox, and Peary caribou.
Cold temperatures, significant ice cover, low nutrients, low productivity, and low species diversity characterize freshwater systems in Quttinirpaaq. Given the rugged terrain, there are many rivers and relatively few lakes within the park. Lake Hazen, in the centre of the park, is one of the largest lakes north of the Arctic Circle. Arctic char, the only species of freshwater fish in Quttinirpaaq, are found throughout the park in lakes and rivers. Smaller water bodies and many rivers contain only invertebrates. Epishelf lakes form on top of the oceanic ice shelves along the park’s northern coast and support unique microbial communities.
Quttinirpaaq contains approximately 2,375 km2 of marine habitat, with numerous deep fiords. Ice is the principal factor influencing the park’s marine waters. Huge ice shelves extend from the north coast and fiords and cover hundreds of square kilometres of ocean. Moving pack ice covers much of the remainder, eroding coastal shorelines, reflecting sunlight, limiting productivity, and influencing marine mammal distribution. Some park waters do experience a short ice-free season, providing important sunlight to the marine environment and allowing some additional species diversity. Marine mammals regularly observed in the park area are only those species that can live in permanent pack ice: ringed seal, bearded seal, narwhal, and polar bear. Even these species are not present year-round.