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The Mackenzie River

Posted May 08 2012 12:00am
Rising at the west end of Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories, the Mackenzie River flows northwestward for almost 1100 miles to the Beaufort Sea. Un-dammed and winding through Subarctic and Arctic wilderness, its wide, braided channel is just the final conduit of a massive watershed that covers 20% of Canada, extending from northeast British Columbia, northern Alberta, northwest Saskatchewan and the western Yukon to the massive Mackenzie River Delta, the 12th largest on our planet. If one includes its most distant tributaries, this river system exceeds 2600 miles in length (the longest in Canada) and drains a watershed of almost 700,000 square miles.

To the southwest, the Peace and Athabaska Rivers rise on the east side of the Continental Divide in the northern Canadian Rockies; these large streams merge to form a large inland delta along Lake Athabaska, which drains to Great Slave Lake via the Slave River. Leaving Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River picks up meltwaters from the Mackenzie Mountains (to its west) via the Liard River system and then receives flow from Great Bear Lake, to its east, the largest lake in Canada. At its braided delta, just east of the Richardson Mountains, the Mackenzie discharges copious amounts of relatively warm, fresh, nutrient-rich water into the Arctic Ocean; this annual discharge, the 14th largest on Earth, dramatically affects the regional ecosystem, allowing boreal woodlands to extend well north of their usual range and increasing the diversity of plants and animals across the ever-changing delta. Beluga whales gather here in spring to molt in the mild river current and the countless, shallow lakes provide ideal breeding habitat for shorebirds, tundra swans and snow geese. Resident mammals include black bears, barren ground grizzlies, Arctic fox, Arctic wolves, caribou, moose, musk ox and a massive number of muskrats.

However, all is not well in this seemingly pristine wilderness. Dams on tributaries of the Mackenzie have reduced flow through its primary channel and are diminishing the annual floods that are crucial to the welfare of its delta ecosystem. In addition, worrisome levels of mercury have been found in the river over the past few years, the product of mining and power plant effluent across the watershed. Of course, as with other Arctic ecosystems, global warming may dramatically effect the natural diversity of this magnificent yet fragile landscape.

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