Devon Island: The Largest Uninhabited Island on Earth

640px-Wff_devon_island

Canada’s Devon Island is the 27th largest island on Earth.  At 55 247 km2 (21 331 sq mi), it’s about the same size as Croatia, yet not a single person lives on the island year-round.  Thanks to its forbidding climate and terrain, Devon is the largest uninhabited island on the planet.

Devon Island is largely comprised of a plateau rising to 300-500 m (980-1 640 ft) above sea level composed of Precambrian gneiss and Paleozoic siltstones surrounded by steep cliffs and indented by large fjords, though the large Grinnell Peninsula on the northwest coast is rather hilly.  The eastern third of Devon is covered in a large ice cap 14 010 km2 (5 410 sq mi) in size and 500-700 m (1 640-2 300 ft) thick, and the western two-thirds is almost completely barren, full of frost-shattered rock.  The scant summer (and by summer, we mean ‘days when the ground is snow-free’) here lasts around 40 to 55 days, and temperatures rarely get hotter than 10 °C (50 °F).  The annual mean temperature? -16°C  (3°F).  Other than a few dozen muskoxen and lemmings concentrated in the Truelove Lowland on the north coast, large animals of any kind are hard to find on Devon.

Located in Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands (the northern half of its Arctic Archipelago), Devon Island was first sighted by Europeans in 1616 when the English explorers Robert Bylot and William Baffin sailed into the Arctic for a then-record furthest north of 77° 45’N latitude.  The island, however, would not receive a name or appear on maps until William Edward Parry’s 1820s search for the Northwest Passage in the region.  Parry named the new land North Devon after Devon, England (at this point, it still hadn’t been determined whether or not it was a distinct island or part of some other island).

Devon1855

The 1855 Colton Map of Northern America shows North Devon with an undefined northwest coast; Grinnell Land would eventually be uncovered as the Grinnell Peninsula.  ‘North Devon’ would morph into ‘Devon Island’ by the end of the century.

While Devon is uninhabited today, there have been settlements on the island in the past.  Palaeo-Inuitartefacts have been found on the island dating back 4 500 years, and modern-day Inuit continued to hunt in the region.  In the 20th century, a settlement was founded at Dundas Harbour on Devon’s south coast; an early attempt to establish a Canadian government presence in the region and to curb whaling activity.  The settlement was based around a Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment that operated from 1924 to 1933 and again from 1945 to 1951.  In the 1933-1945 period, 52 Inuit from Cape Dorset on Baffin Island were resettled here (as with the later postwar High Arctic resettlements to the north , this was done under the pretense of helping the Inuit find food, but all of the Inuit eventually returned to Cape Dorset).  The short-lived community at Dundas Harbour did give rise to what is considered by some to be the northernmost cemetery on the continent (but not the world, as is often stated; this cemetery in Svalbard, for example, is four degrees to the north).  Since 1951, Dundas Harbour has been completely abandoned, thus allowing Devon Island its title as the world’s largest uninhabited island.  The old RCMP buildings still lie on the shore, however, as do the old grave markers.

The Haughton impact crater, west Devon Island.

Despite its lack of population, Devon Island has been in the news over the past decade precisely because of its desolate terrain, particularly that of the 23 km (14 mi) wide Haughton impact crater in the west half of the island.  Haughton is considered to have some of the most Mars-like terrain on Earth, with almost no vegetation and temperature well below zero for most of the year.  As such, it has a very limited amount of erosion.  The impact breccias of the crater, inlaid with permafrost and polygonal landforms similar to those seen in craters on Mars, are considered to be such an analogue for conditions on Mars that Haughton has been used over the past decade as a research ground for attempting to determine how human might live and work on the Red Planet one day.  Operated by the Mars Society and primarily funded by NASA, the research is based out of the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS), located on a ridge above the crater.  This isn’t permanent habitation, however; due to the cost, remoteness and conditions, Martian research here generally only takes place during the very short summers.  Here, research equipment for use in future space missions is tested, and personnel are ran through a battery of physical and psychological tests .  As well, other non-Mars-related scientific research projects are conducted, examining the geology and biology of the island.  The last field season at Haughton, however, took place in 2010, and the FMARS website has not been updated since early 2011, so it appears that due to funding, most of this type of research is now being conducted out of the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah.

640px-FMARS_2009_hab

Living quarters for FMARs personnel.  Source: B. Shiro, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FMARS_2009_hab.jpg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

More recently, the Canadian government has been using Devon for military exercises in an effort to solidify its claim to the waters of the Northwest Passage being internal Canadian territory rather than international waters, as well as solidify its hold on the Arctic Archipelago.  This April, as part of the annual exercise known as Operation Nunalivut, military divers were sent to examine underwater sensors placed off the coast of Devon for surveillance purposes; an experimental programme the Canadian Department of National Defence eventually hopes to turn into a complete surveillance network incorporating underwater sensors, radar, and cameras to monitor the straits.

Ten Largest Uninhabited Islands (km2/sq mi)

1. Devon (Nunavut, Canada), 55 247/21 331

2. Alexander (Antarctica), 49 070/18 946

3. Berkner (Antarctica), 43 873/16 939

4. Axel Heiberg (Nunavut, Canada), 43 178/16 671

5. Melville (Northwest Territories/Nunavut, Canada), 42 149/16 274

6. Prince of Wales (Nunavut, Canada), 33 339/12 872

7. Kotelny/Faddeyevsky (Sakha, Russia), 24 000/9 266

8. Bathurst (Nunavut, Canada), 16 942/6 194

9. Prince Patrick (Northwest Territories, Russia), 15 848/6 119

10. Thurston (Antarctica), 15 700/6 050

Further Reading

Bliss, L. (n.d.).  Devon Island.  The Canadian Encyclopedia.  Available at http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/devon-island.  Accessed 2 May 2012.

CBC News (2012).  Military tests Arctic surveillance technology.  2 May 2012.  Available at http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/05/02/north-arctic-surveillance-technology.html.  Accessed 2 May 2012.

Francone, P. (2011).  The Most Northern Cemetery in the World.  Mysendoff.com, 12 July 2011.  Available at http://mysendoff.com/2011/07/the-most-northern-cemetery-in-the-world/.  Accessed 2 May 2012.

Helmer, J.W. (1991). The Palaeo-Eskimo Prehistory of the North Devon Lowlands.  Arctic 44(4): 301-317.  Available at http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/Arctic44-4-301.pdf.  Accessed 2 May 2012.

Mars Society (2011). Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station.  Available at http://arctic.marssociety.org/.  Accessed 2 May 2012.

Nunatsiaq News (2012).  It’s Arctic spring exercise season for Canada’s military.  9 April 2012.  Available at http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674its_arctic_spring_exercise_season_for_canadas_military/.  Accessed 2 May 2012.

Nearby Articles