Axel Heiberg Island is located between 78.1°N and 81.3°N in the Queen Elizabeth Islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It is part of the Qikiqtani Region (ᕿᑭᖅᑖᓗᒃ in Inuktitut) in Nunavut territory. The uninhabited  island is just over 43,000 km2 making it slightly larger than Switzerland, the home country of many of the first researchers who worked there.

It is one of the more mountainous islands in the Canadian Arctic, particularly on the western margin where the gently rising terrain from the east gives way to steep cliffs between which outlet glaciers of the Müller Ice Cap flow towards the Arctic Ocean in the west. The highest peak on the island, Outlook Peak, reaches 2,120 m above sea level.

Expedition Fiord

Expedition Fiord is located in central Axel Heiberg Island and reaches 35 km in from the western margin. It was named for the Jacobesen-McGill Expedition, which established the first research programme on the island in the early 1960s (read more in Historical Background). The diversity of glaciers on Axel Heiberg Island varies from large outlet glaciers, some of them surge type, to ice caps, mountain glaciers, and small niche glaciers. The region of Expedition Fiord, approximately 800 km2, was selected to be the focus of the multidisciplinary studies as it offered a variety of glacier types that were accessible for study from the base camp established at Colour Lake (79°24′ N 90°42′ W). Local glaciers that were the focus of early studies include, from largest to smallest, Thompson Glacier, Crusoe Glacier, White Glacier, and Baby Glacier.

The map below by F. Müller and J. Harrison (1965) shows the extent of the region of interest for those in the Jacobesen-McGill Expedition. The Müller Ice Cap fills the upper portion of the map, which is centered upon the Thompson Glacier in the lower portion. The glaciers mentioned above flow roughly southward toward the Expedition Valley. Click on the map to see a full size version.

Regional Climate
Automatic Weather Station, White Glacier terminus. Photo: L. Thomson

The Canadian High Arctic is one of the driest glacierized places in the world and by definition is a polar desert. The nearest Environment Canada weather station is located at Eureka (79°59’N  85°56’W) on Ellesmere Island. In Eureka the monthly mean temperature is -38.5°C in February and 5.4°C in July with an annual precipitation of 68 mm (water equivalent).

Shorter measurement series on Axel Heiberg Island indicate a climate that is a few degrees warmer than this. There is also more precipitation, especially at high elevation. A deep snow pit dug near the highest point on Müller Ice Cap in 1960-1961 showed mean annual accumulation of 370 mm water-equivalent over a 41-year period. Today, a network of Campbell Scientific automatic weather stations maintained by McGill University is located throughout the  area and extends from the Head of Expedition Fiord, to a high elevation nunatak on White Glacier.

McGill Arctic Research Station
Upper house of MARS, 2011. Photo: E. Sessford

Following a summer of reconnaissance in the Expedition Fiord area in 1959 the location of the McGill Arctic Research Station was setup next to Colour Lake, located 5 km inland from the head of Expedition Fiord. The original camp, lead by Fritz Müller, consisted of two pre-fabricated buildings and all field tasks were performed by foot or ski. Today the station has expanded to three buildings and a number of semi-permanent structures under the  management of Dr Wayne Pollard at McGill University. We use snowmobiles to access White and Baby glaciers in the spring field seasons, and primarily hike to our field sites in the summer. More information about the McGill Arctic Research Station can be found here.