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Definition: Baffin Island from Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

Largest island of Arctic Archipelago, E Nunavut, Canada, W of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait; 183,810 sq. mi. (476,068 sq. km.); 5th largest island in the world; separated from Quebec on the S by Hudson Strait; in NW is Admiralty Inlet, in S part two lakes, Amadjuak and Nettilling, and on SE coast two large inlets, Cumberland Sound and Frobisher Bay; coal, iron ore; may have been visited by Norse 11th cent.; visited by English mariner Martin Frobisher 1576–78. Named for Arctic explorer William Baffin.

Summary Article: BAFFIN
From Encyclopedias of the Natural World: Encyclopedia of Islands

Baffin Island, with an area of more than 500,000 km2, is one of the principal islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and the world's fifth-largest island (Fig. 1). It lies within the territory of Nunavut, at the eastern portal of the Northwest Passage, the grail of early explorers and a potential shipping route in years to come. Half the island's 11,000 inhabitants live in Iqaluit, the administrative capital for Nunavut; the remainder live in seven other coastal communities. The island is named after William Baffin, a seventeenth-century British explorer, although it was known previously to the Norse as Helluland, the land of flat stones.

Map showing location (inset) and geology of Baffin Island.


Early settlement of the island dates back about 4000 years to the Paleoeskimo Pre-Dorset people, and their successors, the Dorset people. These cultural groups are named after key sites at Cape Dorset, along the south coast of Baffin Island. Both cultures were based on a maritime economy dominated by the hunting of sea mammals, especially walrus, narwhal, and beluga. The Dorset culture is particularly renowned for superb miniature ivory carvings of sea animals, polar bears, humans, and magical beings. About 1000 years ago, as the climate warmed, the Thule people, the ancestors of the present Inuit, migrated eastward into the region, and for the first time dog teams were used to pull sleds. Although seals and bowhead whales were the main food sources of the Thule people, all early peoples of Baffin Island had a diversified diet that included sea mammals, caribou, fish, and birds' eggs.

The first definitive European exploration began in 1576 when Martin Frobisher, an English privateer-turned-explorer, sailed into what is now known as Frobisher Bay. There, he found "black ore," which he promoted as gold-bearing. He brought back more than 1200 tons to England in three mining expeditions backed by investors, but all the ore was hornblende and pyrite—fool's gold. Frobisher thus instigated the first mining scam in the New World.

Today, the island's main inhabitants are the Inuit, and their economy is based on government administration, hunting and fishing, mineral resources, and tourism, as well as the carving and printmaking first established at Cape Dorset.


Baffin Island is part of the Canadian Shield. The oldest rocks are Archean-age (2.8 billion years ago) granite, gneiss, and metamorphosed volcanic and sedimentary rocks that form part of the Rae Craton, a proto-continent. A large fold belt crossing the central and southern parts of the island consists of a continental margin succession of quartzite, marble, shale, and turbidite wackes of Proterozoic age (2.16—1.90 billion years ago), deposited on the flank of the craton. Associated volcanic rocks resulted from eruptions about 1.93 billion years ago. The Precam-brian rocks were deformed by plate convergence and continental accretion during the Trans-Hudson Orogeny 1.8 billion years ago, a major event in the welding together of the Canadian Shield. Later, in the Paleozoic era (450 million years ago), calcareous marine sediments were laid down over the craton. The flat-lying strata of dolos-tone and limestone that form surface rocks on western parts of the island are remnants of this event. Gold, iron ore, and sapphires from the Precambrian rocks, lead-zinc deposits in the Paleozoic carbonates, and diamonds in younger kimberlite intrusions are the main mineral resources on the island.

In the Cenozoic era, passive-margin plate tectonics associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean and the drifting ofGreenland caused rifting and uplift along the northern and eastern edge of Baffin Island and shaped the island into what we know today—a plateau tilted downward toward the southwest. The eastern side of the island rises 2100 m out of the waters of Baffin Bay, creating an ice-capped mountainous edge that is deeply dissected by fjords and sounds, some of which penetrate more that 100 km inland (Fig. 2). The land slopes gently across a central plateau to the relatively shallow waters of Foxe Basin.

The northern coast. Rock-walled Royal Society Fjord, with snowfields on the highlands and small outlet glaciers descending to tidewater. Photograph GSC 2007-193 by D. A. Hodgson.

In the last 2 million years, Baffin's landforms have been modified by the great ice sheets that covered substantial parts of the northern hemisphere. During the last glaciation, culminating 20,000 years ago, Laurentide ice from the Canadian mainland crossed to the outermost edges of Baffin Island, scraping and polishing rocks, deepening fjords, and depositing a layer of till (a mixture of glacially eroded debris). Ice began to melt away from the northeast highlands about 8600 years ago and from Foxe Basin about 7800 years ago, shifting one of the glacial dispersal centers onto central Baffin Island. The 700-m thick Barnes Ice Cap (Fig. 3) on the central plateau and the Penny Ice Cap are the last remaining remnants of the once-vast continental ice sheet. The numerous ice fields and small outlet glaciers in the mountains covering the northern island rim are more recent and have formed in the postglacial period. As the ice sheet melted, marine waters inundated the lowlands along Foxe Basin, depositing sand and mud. With glacioisostatic rebound, these deposits now lie between present sea level and an elevation of about 100 m and form the grassy coastal lowlands that are major wildlife habitat.

The edge of the Barnes Ice Cap, ice-marginal moraine ridges, proglacial meltwater streams, and nearby tundra barrens. Photograph GSC 2007-195 by L. A. Dredge.


Most of Baffin Island lies above the Arctic Circle and is thus subjected to midnight sun in summer and polar night during the winter. It experiences a maritime arctic to continental-arctic climate. Mean annual temperatures average about —15 °C; precipitation ranges from 400 mm on the eastern lowlands to less than 200 mm on the upland plateau, which forms a polar desert. Below a shallow layer of soil that thaws seasonally, the ground remains frozen to a depth of about 400 m.

Most of the land is rocky and supports tundra-barrens vegetation, mainly a cover of lichen-heath (Fig. 4). Foxes, wolves, hares, and lemmings are found in this habitat. However, extensive areas of the plateau above an elevation of 550 m were covered with persistent snow-fields during the Little Ice Age, between AD 1600 and 1850. These areas remain almost bare of any vegetation, including lichens, and are devoid of wildlife. In contrast, the lowlands around Foxe Basin consist of sedge and grass meadows containing dwarf birch and willow shrubs, interspersed with shallow tundra ponds. These areas are prime habitats for barren-ground caribou and a myriad of migratory birds, including various species of geese, sandpipers, murres, plovers, and gulls. The lowland around Nettilling Lake, known as the Great Plain of the Koudjuak, lies along the Eastern Flyway and is a major nesting area for Canada and brant geese. Whales, particularly the bowhead, beluga, and narwhal, are prevalent in open waters, and walruses, polar bears, and ringed and bearded seals live on the pack ice that surrounds the island for much of the year.

Lichen-covered, glaciated, granitic rocks and tundra barrens of central Baffin Island. Stacked boulders are left where rocks transported within glaciers have been gently deposited as the ice melts. Photograph GSC 2007-196 by L. A. Dredge.


Arctic Region / Climate Change / Sea-Level Change

  • Andrews, J.T. 1989. Quaternary geology of the northeastern Canadian Shield. Geological Survey of Canada, Geology of Canada 1: 1-318.
  • Bird, J. B. 1967. The physiography of Arctic Canada. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Dredge, L. A. 2002. Surficial materials, central Baffin Island. Geological Survey of Canada, Current Research 2002-C20.
  • McGhee, R. 1996. Ancient people ofthe Arctic. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Porsild, A. E. 1964. Illustrated flora of the Canadian Arctic Archepelago. National Museum of Canada Bulletin 146.
  • Scott, D. J., St-Onge, M., and Corrigan, D.. 2003. Geology of the Archaean Rae Craton and Mary River Group and the Paleoproterozoic Piling Group, central Baffin Island, Nunavut. Geological Survey of Canada, Current Research 2003-C26.
Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa
© 2009 by the Regents of the University of California

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