We talk and write about the Niagara Escarpment a fair amount, and rightfully so.
It is our most protected ecosystem in not only Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the whole of southern Ontario. Its endless collection of waterfalls and scenic cliff tops are home to some of Canada’s highest levels of biodiversity, and provide outstanding recreational opportunities.
For today though, let’s look across Lake Ontario to the escarpment’s lesser-celebrated glacial cousin, the Oak Ridges Moraine.
This elevated landform runs for approximately 160 kilometres, from Peel to Rice Lake, broadly arching up and around the whole of
the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). A moraine, like an escarpment, is a geological creation due to the action of glacial retreat.
Essentially, it is a gigantic pile of soil and rock that has been shaped and placed where it is today. The difference between a moraine and an escarpment is that the moraine is much less severe, and way more subtle, than the sheer drop of an escarpment.
Perhaps the Oak Ridges Moraine’s subtleness is its unintentional downfall.
Toronto continues to exhibit aggressive radial growth outwards, like bacteria in a petri dish. With no obvious room to grow south into Lake Ontario, the GTA continues to expand inland and northbound. It has now effectively met up with the ecologically-sensitive and important moraine, but is perceived by many as just a bunch of random hills and pockets of woods.
Both the Niagara Escarpment and The Oak Ridges Moraine are glacial features that sit elevated and tucked away from Lake Ontario’s shore, but I would argue the latter faces more pressure to its integrity.
Like the Niagara Escarpment does for citizens of the Niagara Region, the Oak Ridges Moraine is an essential refuge for wildlife, and is the birthplace of many important watersheds.
The Credit, Humber, Don, and Rouge Rivers, and other urban waterways, have their headwaters up in the moraine. These rivers are fed by not only rainfall, but an essential reserve of aquifer water which sits stored beneath the 12,000-year-old glacial hills. As urban sprawl encroaches on these forested mounds, we run the risk of not only eliminating precious habitat, but also tampering with the city’s freshwater quality and quantity.
The headwaters of the rivers are irreplaceable starting points offering cool, oxygenated water, and acting as a sponge for flood protection. As Ontario obtusely continues to pave over the remaining forested areas of the moraine, the risk of flash flooding will only increase for the GTA’s residents.
The current stands of the remaining ecosystem are quite different from Niagara’s section of the escarpment. Our forests are technically part of the Carolinian Forest zone, whereas the Oak Ridges Moraine is part of the St. Lawrence Mixed Forest. Although the moraine is slightly less biodiverse, it still contains larger swaths of habitat than the Niagara Escarpment’s thin ribbon of green.
My attention was drawn to the moraine as provincial election season is off to the races. As someone who doesn’t identify with any particular political party, I wanted to take a moment to objectively point out the Conservative’s promises for the construction of the proposed Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass.
I am not anti-development, and I understand southern Ontario is poised for explosive population growth in the coming decades. I do, however, question how these two highways will impact the Oak Ridges Moraine, and how that impact will influence the lives of those who will soon dwell along it.
If you ever have the opportunity, the moraine is still full of unique hiking and beautiful exploring opportunities, and it is just a short drive away, on the outskirts of Canada’s most densely populated area.