Physical Geography

Size and Location

With a total area of 3,849,670 square miles (9,970,610 km2), Canada is the second largest nation in the world. It is slightly more than half the size of Russia and is somewhat larger than China and the United States. With a maximum width (east-west) of 3,200 miles (5,150 km), Canada stretches across six time zones. The north-south maximum distance is 12,800 miles (4,500 km). The coast of the mainland measures about 17,900 miles (28,800 km); that of the islands, 41,800 miles (67,270 km).

Canada borders the United States in the south and stretches northward, past the Arctic Circle, to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The east coast is formed largely by the Atlantic Ocean, including such arms as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Labrador Sea, Davis Strait, and Baffin Bay. Western Canada fronts on the Pacific Ocean and borders Alaska. The 5,527-mile (8,895-km) Canada-United States boundary, including 1,540 miles (2,478 km) along Alaska, is the longest between any two nations in the world.

CanadaCanada is the second largest country in the world. Only Russia has more land.

Canada can be divided into seven major physical regions. All were heavily glaciated and altered during the last Ice Age.

The Canadian Shield

An immense block of ancient crystalline rock, called the Canadian Shield, spans roughly half of the country. It curves in a great arc around Hudson Bay from the coast of Labrador to the Beaufort Sea. Included in the region are some Arctic islands. Most of the terrain varies from relatively level to hummocky, with an abundance of glacial debris, exposed rock, lakes, and muskegs (bogs). Elevations are generally less than 1,500 feet (460 m); however, they exceed 3,500 feet (1,070 m) in the Laurentian Mountains, north of the St. Lawrence River, and reach 8,500 feet (2,590 m) on Baffin Island. The Shield is rich in minerals, forests, and waterpower, both developed and potential. Most of it has not been settled.

The Hudson Bay Lowland

is a flat, poorly drained area of marine deposits between the Canadian Shield and the southern shore of Hudson Bay. It extends inland up to 200 miles (320 km) and lies roughly between the Moose and Churchill rivers. Except for the wheat-shipping port of Churchill, in the north, there are virtually no settlements.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowland

is a fertile area of level to rolling land adjoining Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River in southern Ontario and Quebec. Though relatively small, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowland is the most heavily populated and productive part of Canada.

The Appalachian Region

in the east, includes the island of Newfoundland, the Maritime Provinces, and that part of Quebec southeast of the St. Lawrence valley. The region is the northernmost part of an ancient, largely eroded mountain system and consists mainly of hills and low, rounded mountains. In some areas there are coastal lowlands and fertile valleys and basins. The highest peak rises only 4,160 feet (1,268 m) above sea level, in the Notre Dame Mountains on the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec.

The Cordilleran Region,

in the west, is the highest and most rugged part of Canada. It includes most of British Columbia, virtually all of the Yukon Territory, and parts of the Northwest Territories and Alberta.

The region's eastern portion consists of the Rocky Mountains, including the Mackenzie Mountains and other ranges. In the west are the Coast Mountains and a maze of mountainous offshore islands, chief of which are Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Between the Rockies and the Coast Mountains lies a rugged area of high plateaus, mountain ranges, and deep valleys. Numerous peaks in the Cordilleran Region reach elevations of more than 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Mount Logan, Canada's highest, towers 19,524 feet (5,951 m) above sea level in the St. Elias Mountains in the Yukon Territory, near the Alaska border. Much of the Cordilleran Region is wilderness, rich in hydroelectric power potential, forests, and minerals. Most of Canada's oldest and most popular national parks, including Banff and Jasper, are in the Cordilleran Region.

The Interior Plains,

a broad strip of land between the Canadian Shield and the Cordilleran Region, make up the largest area of nearly level land in Canada. The southern part consists of prairies, most of which are part of the Great Plains of North America. A comparatively small section is part of the Central Lowlands. The region is as much as 800 miles (1,300 km) wide in the prairies, where the original grassland vegetation created deep, fertile soils, the basis of a rich farming region. Elevations range from sea level at the Arctic coast to more than 4,000 feet (1,200 m) at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta.

The Arctic Islands Region

consists of hundreds of islands, most of them above the Arctic Circle. Among the largest are Baffin, Ellesmere, Victoria, Banks, and Devon. Some islands are low-lying; others are plateau-like or mountainous. Ice permanently covers much of the northernmost islands, particularly Ellesmere, where mountains reach elevations of more than 8,500 feet (2,600 m).


Canada's many rivers and countless lakes, a legacy of the glaciers, have a combined area of more than 292,000 square miles (755,000 km2). They are a resource valued for hydroelectric power, fisheries, and navigation, and some are of great scenic beauty. Niagara Falls, in Ontario, attracts tourists from all over the world.

Canada shares four of the Great Lakes— Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—with the United States. (The fifth, Lake Michigan, is wholly within the United States.) Together with the St. Lawrence River, they are historically and economically Canada's most important inland waters. With their canals, they form a navigable route that extends far inland and serves the most highly developed part of the country.

The Hudson Bay drainage basin is the largest in Canada—more than 1,466,000 square miles (3,797,000 km2). Its chief river is the Nelson, which begins at Lake Winnipeg, a remnant of the glacial Lake Agassiz. Major rivers in the Nelson system are the Saskatchewan, North Saskatchewan, South Saskatchewan, Assiniboine, Red, and Winnipeg. The Churchill, farther north, is also a major river in the Hudson Bay basin.

The Arctic drainage basin rivals the Hudson Bay basin in size. It is dominated by the Mackenzie river system, one of the longest in the world—2,635 miles (4,241 km) from the mouth of the Mackenzie to the head of the Finlay River in the Rockies. Three of Canada's largest lakes—Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake, and Lake Athabasca—lie in the Mackenzie's drainage area. Major tributaries and headstreams include the Liard, Hay, Peace, Athabasca, and Slave.

The rivers of the Pacific basin flow from the mountains of the Cordilleran Region to the Pacific Ocean, following tortuous courses marked by deep canyons, rapids, and falls. Among them are the Columbia, Fraser, and Yukon rivers.


Most of Canada has either a polar or a subpolar climate. These two types of climate prevail throughout the northern and central parts of the country, including the northern sections of the mainland provinces. Winters here are long and bitterly cold, with average January temperatures ranging from roughly -10° to -35° F. (-23° to -37° C.), depending on location. Lows of -50° to -60° F. (-46° to -51° C.) are common. Summers are brief and cool, with occasional warm periods. July temperatures average between 40° and 60° F. (4° and 16° C.). Precipitation is light, particulary in the far north, and consists mainly of snow.

The Pacific coast, with cool waters offshore and protected from the Arctic cold by high mountains, has the most moderate climate in Canada. Rarely is the weather severely hot or cold. Summers are cool to warm, with average July readings near 60° F. (16° C.). Winters are mild, all months averaging above freezing. Rainfall is abundant—more than 100 inches (2,540 mm) a year in some areas exposed directly to the sea. Much cloudiness also marks the weather, especially during winter. Winter is also the period of greatest precipitation.

Away from the coast in the mountainous region of southern British Columbia the climate is highly varied, but markedly colder and drier. The variation stems mainly from differences in elevation and, to a lesser extent, latitude. The windward sides of mountains receive considerably more precipitation than the leeward sides.

A type of continental climate prevails throughout the prairies of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, where winters are severe. In the western part, the severity is moderated somewhat by warm chinook winds from the Rockies. January temperatures average about 0° to 10° F. (-18° to -12° C.), depending on location. Summers are warm throughout the prairies, July averaging near 70° F. (21° C.). There are also days of 90° to 100° F. (32° to 38° C.). Precipitation is variable in this relatively dry region, but usually averages between 10 and 20 inches (255 and 510 mm) a year.

The southern parts of Ontario and Quebec have a humid continental type of climate. Winters are long and cold, January averaging about 5° to 15° F. (-15° to -9° C.). Summers are warm and somewhat longer than in most other regions in Canada. Precipitation is abundant, about 30 to 40 inches (760 to 1,020 mm) a year. Snowfall is heavy, especially in southern Quebec.

The climate of the Atlantic Provinces resembles that of southern Quebec and Ontario, but is modified by the ocean. Summers are cool to warm; winters are cold, snowy, and damp. Fog is prevalent in many areas. Precipitation is heavy; at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for example, it averages more than 50 inches (1,270 mm) per year.

Plants and Animals

Most of Canada is tundra, forestland, or grassland.

The tundra lies mainly in the permafrost areas of the far north, where the subsoil is frozen all year. It is a bleak, treeless tract where mosses, lichens, sedges, and other extremely hardy small plants grow during a brief warm season. Similar vegetation occurs above the timberline in the high western mountains.

The forests, a major natural resource of Canada, lie south of the tundra and cover about 45 per cent of the country, or 1,711,000 square miles (4,431,000 km2). They begin in the Arctic as stands of low, stunted trees and reach their greatest development in a vast forest that stretches from Labrador to Alaska. This forest, called the boreal forest, consists mainly of conifers— spruces, pines, firs, and hemlocks. Similar coniferous forests, the source of most of the timber cut for lumber, cover much of the western mountains, especially in British Columbia. Trees here include Douglas fir, western red cedar, and ponderosa pine.

Mixed forests—consisting of conifers mingled with such deciduous trees as birches, poplars (including aspen), maples, beeches, and elms—occur along the southern fringe of the boreal forest and prevail in southeastern Canada.

Grasslands, much like those of the northern Great Plains of the United States, are found in the southern sections of the Prairie Provinces. Much of this area is now farmland, used largely for growing wheat and other grains.


With its vast wilderness and sparsely settled areas, Canada retains a richly varied and abundant wildlife. There are about 185 known species of mammals. Some are numerous and far-ranging; others are rare and limited to small areas. Among the large land mammals are grizzly, polar, brown, and black bears; moose; wapiti (elk); caribou; bison; musk oxen; mountain sheep; mountain goats; cougars; and wolves. Smaller animals include the lynx, fox, mink, marten, wolverine, ferret, otter, fisher, skunk, badger, squirrel, chipmunk, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, lemming, and wood-chuck. Most of these are of the weasel or rodent family, and many are valued for their fur. Seals and walruses inhabit the cold coastal waters.

There are more than 500 known species of birds. Some stay the year round, but many are migratory. Numerous kinds of fish abound in the many lakes and streams. Among the best known are char, grayling, pike, salmon, sturgeon, trout, and whitefish. Of the 35 varieties of snakes, rattlesnakes are the only poisonous ones. Frogs are the most abundant and widespread of the amphibians. There are numerous kinds of insects. Among the most annoying to humans are mosquitoes, horseflies, and deerflies.