Understanding the implications of climate change on northern Canada requires a background about the size and diversity of its human and biogeophysical systems. Occupying an area of almost 40% of Canada, with one-third of this contained in Arctic islands, Canada's northern territories consist of a diversity of physical environments unrivaled around the circumpolar north. Major ecozones composed of a range of landforms, climate, vegetation, and wildlife include: Arctic, boreal and taiga cordillera; boreal and taiga plains; taiga shield; and northern and southern Arctic. Although generally characterized by a cold climate, there is an enormous range in air temperature with mean annual values being as high as -5 degrees C in the south to as low as -20 degrees C in the high Arctic islands. A similar contrast characterizes precipitation, which can be > 700 mm y(-1) in some southern alpine regions to as low as 50 mm y(-1) over islands of the high Arctic. Major freshwater resources are found within most northern ecozones, varying from large glaciers or ice caps and lakes to extensive wetlands and peat lands. Most of the North's renewable water, however, is found within its major river networks and originates in more southerly headwaters. Ice covers characterize the freshwater systems for multiple months of the year while permafrost prevails in various forms, dominating the terrestrial landscape. The marine environment, which envelops the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is dominated by seasonal to multiyear sea ice often several meters thick that plays a key role in the regional climate. Almost two-thirds of northern Canadian communities are located along coastlines with the entire population being just over 100 000. Most recent population growth has been dominated by an expansion of nonaboriginals, primarily the result of resource development and the growth of public administration. The economies of northern communities, however, remain quite mixed with traditional land-based renewable resource-subsistence activities still being a major part of many local economies.