Canada: Physical Landscapes

Canada is a vast country with a great variety of impressive scenery. The natural environment, or physical landscape, provides the stage upon which human cultures play out their ways of living. In this regard, Canada is blessed in countless ways—its land regions, weather and climate, ecosystems, water features, and other natural resources offer much diversity throughout the country.

Despite its rather northerly location, Canada offers an amazing variety of natural features and environments. While portions of the country reflect the chilling influence of its northern latitude, it is also home to rain forests and cacti, and has places where snow rarely falls.


Imagine kayaking the Mackenzie River in waters that flow for more than 2,000 wandering miles (3,200 kilometers). Picture rugged mountain peaks scratching the sky at nearly 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). Observe the world’s most extreme tidal changes of slightly over 50 feet (15 meters) in the Bay of Fundy. These and many other dramatic features of nature are all found within Canada, the second-largest country in the world. Occupying more than 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million square kilometers), Canada covers slightly more land area than the United States and is exceeded in size only by Russia.

In the six time zones spanned by Canada, there is a great variety of contrasting physical landscapes. Extensive shorelines, many with towering cliffs, border Hudson Bay in north central Canada. To the north and west of Hudson Bay, scattered Arctic snowfields and glaciers are the only interruption to Canada’s treeless tundra plains. In the southwest, along the Pacific Ocean, lush green vegetation carpets much of the coastal, mountainous landscape. And between it all are Canada’s flat to gently rolling interior plains.

Canada Map


Humans rely upon natural resources—air, water, soil, plants, animals, and various minerals—to survive. Yet these physical elements and their characteristics do not determine the way of life for the inhabitants who live there. The environment is one of many forces affecting human culture—a way of life composed of a particular people’s knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and behaviors. It is this human aspect of culture that influences how, or if, people utilize the land and its resources in a particular way.

There are three important elements of cultural ecology (the relationships that exist between humans and the natural environment) to consider. First, there is the element of how people of a particular culture (way of life) adapt to the natural environment they occupy. For example, do the majority of people maintain permanent homes year-round, or do they relocate with the seasonal changes and follow the food supply?

Second, there is the element of how the environment is viewed and used by the people.Do the people feel native environments should be preserved, or should they be made available for resource development and income? How do the people recognize, feel about, and use the land and its resources? Finally, how has the environment’s appearance and usefulness been changed by human activity? Let’s continue looking at Canada’s physical landscapes keeping the idea of cultural ecology—human and natural landscape relationships—in mind.


Canada has six major landform regions, each with its own variations in physical landscape. The regions are designated the Atlantic Provinces, Canadian Shield, Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Lowlands, Interior Plains, Cordillera (Pacific), and Arctic North.

Atlantic Provinces

When European explorers and settlers initially visited Canada, they first saw the eastern Atlantic Provinces region. Today, the region includes the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. They are a northeastern extension of the Appalachians, an ancient mountain range continuing southwestward into the United States. Over millions of years, the scouring effects of ice, wind, and water have softened the once-sharp features of the Appalachians. Today, there is a quaint patchwork of fertile rolling hills and valleys with scattered farms and fruit orchards that are characteristic of the interior of this region. Agriculture flourishes in the fertile river valleys of the St. John River in New Brunswick and the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia.

Throughout much of this region, broad vistas of forests and rugged, indented coastlines are clearly visible—except when dense fog rolls in from the sea to blanket the bays and coastlines, as happens more than 200 days per year in some communities in Newfoundland!

Canadian Shield

West of the Atlantic Maritimes is the rocky, lake-dotted physical landscape of the Canadian Shield. This unique geologic region is considered by scientists to be the core of the North American continent. Also known as the Laurentian Plateau, the Canadian Shield is composed of the continent’s most ancient surface rock, formed billions of years ago. It covers more than one-half the country’s land area and is responsible for the physical separation of eastern from western Canada. Hudson Bay lies in the heart of the Shield. During the Ice Age, when the area was covered by thousands of feet of glacial ice, a huge indentation was created on Earth’s surface by the tremendous weight of the glacial ice mass. The Hudson Bay now occupies this basin.When the ice retreated, the land began to rebound—a process still underway. It is this rebound, or land rising, that has created the steep coastal cliffs along part of Hudson Bay (and much of the north shore of Lake Superior).

The Shield is a region of vast resource wealth. It is a storehouse of minerals, including iron and nickel. It also has huge waterpower potential and is home to one of the world’s largest unbroken expanses of forest. In addition, the solitude of its lakes, rivers, and varied wildlife is a greatly appreciated ecological resource. Scraped by the advance and retreat of glacial activity, gouges left in the rock collected water in their basins and crevices. This ancient Precambrian (Shield) rock is strewn with countless bogs, swamps, ponds, lakes, and rivers.With so much water occupying the surface, transportation linkages are costly to build and are therefore few in number. Most travel here must be by air, testing the skills of Canada’s famous “bush pilots” and their sturdy workhorse planes—equipped with pontoons for summer, and skis for winter. Because the soil here is shallow and poor in quality—and surface transportation so difficult—this region supports a very low population.

The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Lowlands

This region of Canada extends across a narrow belt of southern Ontario and Quebec along the Canadian–U.S. border. This relatively small area has many towns and cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City. Much of the region is the most southerly in Canada, near Canada’s border with the United States. People living here—nearly one-half of all Canadians—actually live south, in terms of latitude, of the U.S. boundary between Washington and Oregon. Milder temperatures, abundant level land, rich soils, and ease of transportation on the St. Lawrence River initially attracted people to live in this narrow belt. The luxurious agricultural land that once attracted many settlers to this region is still utilized for farming, but large areas of farmland are being slowly transformed into urban and industrial use, and therefore are being lost to agricultural production.

The five Great Lakes form a connected system that is the world’s largest body of fresh water. They are linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the largest river in eastern Canada, the St. Lawrence. The moderating (warming) effects of lakes Erie and Ontario extend the frost-free days of the Niagara Peninsula, allowing peaches, grapes, and pears to grow extensively.

Additionally, the waterways of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River remain ice-free for much of the year, thus offering this inland region access to the Atlantic Ocean and to other places of the world through a linking system of rivers and canals. A visible physical boundary, the ridge of the Niagara Escarpment, begins to separate the agricultural lowlands from the forested Canadian Shield to the north.

Interior Plains

The Interior Plains form an immense region of nearly level grassland bordered by the Canadian Shield to the east and the Canadian Rockies to the west. Ancient Lake Agassiz, formed nearly 12,000 years ago from glacial meltwater, once covered much of the southern Interior Plains, especially Manitoba and Saskatchewan. After “drying up” approximately 7,000 years ago (the largest body of water remaining from Lake Agassiz is present-day Lake Winnipeg), a rich layer of soil was left behind on the former lake bed. This soil forms the basis for much of central Canada’s agricultural wealth. Rich grain-producing regions in Alberta and Saskatchewan, of wheat especially, make Canada one of the world’s major exporters of grain. Surprisingly, the waving fields of golden wheat so familiar to the landscape today were introduced by farmers only in the last century.

The strange-looking sandstone “hoodoos” of southern Alberta are another surprise in the region’s natural landscape.

These spirit-like pillars, created by the erosive effects of wind and water, are located in the Red Deer River Valley. Erosion also has exposed layers of rock and dinosaur fossils, uncovering rich concentrations of dinosaur remains. The Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta have been of use since First Nations (the preferred term for groups popularly referred to, although incorrectly, as “Indians”) used the material to waterproof canoes in the late 1700s.

The Cordillera

The Spanish origin of the word cordillera means “parallel ridges.” Starting from the Canadian Rockies and extending west to the Pacific Ocean, this region offers spectacular vertically oriented scenery that contrasts physically with the flatter, horizontal beauty of the Interior Plains. The young mountain ranges here, including the Coastal and St. Elias Mountains, run in parallel ridges from the northern borders on the Beaufort Sea along the western coast, southward into western Mexico. Where the mountains meet the sea, many deep and narrow inlets called fjords are formed. Ice Age glaciers scoured these scenic, steep-sided arms of the sea.

As is true throughout the Pacific Rim region, earthquakes pose a constant threat to land, property, and life in western Canada. High plateaus and deep valleys offer further variety in the physical landscape. Additionally, the lush, rainnourished forests and the gardens of coastal British Columbia near Vancouver and Victoria receive the benefits of a coastal Pacific location. Yet, on the leeward (the side sheltered from the wind; here, eastern) side of the mountains, a rain-shadow effect forces Okanogan Valley farmers to irrigate orchards and vineyards. Because the wind cannot blow “through” the mountain, this protected area remains dry when rain blows in and falls on the windward (unprotected) side of the mountain. Here, cactus can even be found growing in some protected areas.

These running ridges of parallel mountain ranges posed engineering difficulties for the development of the transcontinental railways and highways. The majority of the region’s population is contained in the more accessible southwestern part of British Columbia, linked to the Pacific Ocean in the dense population clusters of Vancouver and Victoria. This is true as well in the population clusters of Yukon Territory where southwestern access to the Pacific Ocean is available.

The Arctic North

This region is often described as located north of the 60th parallel of latitude. Consisting of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, the Arctic North comprises approximately 40 percent of Canada’s land area. The region “overlaps” the Canadian Shield to both the north and east. Straits and sounds (inlets) separate the maze of islands in the Arctic North and link to form the elusive Northwest Passage, a waterway route sought by several early explorers.

Just beyond the tree line of the boreal forest, the Arctic North has a treeless region known as the tundra. It is a cold, barren, windswept, and seemingly forbidding region; yet for several thousand years, it has been home to the Inuit (Eskimo) people. The permafrost layer of its soil is frozen year-round; the shallow covering of surface soil above the permafrost thaws during the summer months, when daylight is nearly continuous. Even though the frost-free season is brief, its almost-constant sunlight coaxes small delicate flowers, lichens, and mosses to life, carpeting the surface. The ground often becomes swampy during this time of year—much of the land is so flat that drainage is poor. The snow that does thaw cannot seep into the frozen ground, so it remains on the surface. The resulting bogs of spongy surface soil are called “muskeg.” All too soon, the long, dark, bitterly cold winters return to the tundra, and the surface soil freezes hard again.

Meanwhile, even farther north, the polar ice cap remains frozen year-round.


Weather describes present atmospheric conditions, whereas climate describes the long-term averages of weather patterns. Canada’s diverse weather and climate—and their resulting effects—are evident in its variety of landscapes, which range from lush, moisture-fed rain forests to windswept treeless tundra; polar deserts to sun-nourished grain fields; luscious peach orchards to salty windstorms.

Canada’s weather and climate are influenced by a combination of factors. They include latitude, elevation, slope, pressure and wind patterns, water features, and the orientation of major landform features. For instance, in the low-lying area of White River, Ontario, cool evening air settles and drains downslope, creating a “frost hollow” more than 300 days per year on average.

Because of Canada’s northerly latitude, the sun’s rays strike the earth’s surface at a low angle, resulting in winters that are long and cold, and summers that are short and warm (but not hot). Elevation has a large influence on Canada’s climate and weather as well; for example, the amount and frequency of precipitation at higher elevations is greater on the windward (unprotected) side of a mountain range. This is evident in the Cordillera region of Canada, where the mountain ranges also act as barriers to prevent moisture-laden Pacific air from entering Canada’s interior. While the air mass does move over these ranges, most of its moisture is evaporated by the time the air reaches Alberta.

Also, temperatures decrease with increased elevation, resulting in cooler weather in the mountains—and attractive summer vacation spots. It also explains why many mountain peaks are covered with snow (or glacier) all year.

The open flatness of the Canadian prairies makes the area susceptible to invading Arctic cold winds in the winter and hot, dry southerly winds in the summer. Yet, the Chinook winds (dry, warm winds due to air compression as they descend the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains) can change this susceptibility in a short time.

As you may recall, central Canada is dominated by the saucer-shaped Canadian Shield with Hudson Bay in the Shield’s core. Despite the ruggedness of the bogs, lakes, and rocky outcroppings, air stream movement is affected very minimally by the Shield’s overall landscape.

Larger bodies of water such as the Great Lakes have a profound influence on climate. Water heats up more slowly than land and holds the heat longer once it is absorbed. As a result, these large bodies of water have a moderating effect on the climate of southern and eastern Canada, keeping those regions slightly warmer than they otherwise might be.

The Pacific Coastal region is generally warm and moist. Prevailing westerly winds blow across the warm waters of the Pacific, carrying both moisture and warmth over land. The Atlantic Provinces, however, receive prevailing westerly winds from the continent’s interior. When winds do arrive onshore from the east, they have traveled across the icy waters of the Labrador Current. This current flows from the arctic region and brings cool temperatures and high humidity—conditions that combine to create bone-chilling weather.

The Arctic Ocean of Canada’s northern polar region, with its drifting ice and enormous fields of pack ice, offers little help moderating the cold. However, heat conducted through the ice does keep winter temperatures from reaching the extremes that often occur over land. During the “warmer” months from June through August, ice fog and Arctic “sea smoke” form over breaks in the ice pack.

Temperature ranges vary greatly from one location to another. The average annual temperature range is figured by subtracting the average temperature of the coldest month from the average temperature of the warmest month. For example, the annual temperature range difference in the central Northwest Territories is 104°F (58°C), compared to a 50°F (28°C) annual temperature range along the Pacific Coast. Typical annual temperature ranges are 95°F (53°C) for the Prairie Provinces, 86°F (48°C) for the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Seaway region, and 73°F (41°C) for the Atlantic Maritimes. (Remember that these are temperature ranges, not temperature averages.)

Precipitation (moisture that reaches the ground as rain, hail, sleet, or snow) is heaviest along Canada’s Pacific Coast in British Columbia. Here, the annual precipitation levels can exceed 90 inches (229 centimeters), while in southeastern Alberta the levels rarely exceed 15 inches (38 centimeters). The country’s precipitation is unevenly distributed in both geographic location and time, as is shown by the arid conditions of the rain-shadowed regions, polar deserts, and the desert oasis near Osoyoos, in British Columbia near the border with central Washington.

Along with the precipitation and sunshine Canada receives, the country also is ventilated by winds of varying strength, temperature, and humidity. Tales of early peoples are filled with many and varied images of local winds. Some names refer to the origin or destination of the wind, some describe the coldness or warmth of the air, while others are descriptive of either pleasant or trying times. One image defines a “barber” as a strong wind bringing precipitation that freezes to your hair upon contact! Additionally, Canada experiences thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, and occasional hurricanes.

So perhaps it is more appropriate to speak of the climates of such an immense country as Canada.


If asked to name one tree species found in Canada, what would your response be? Sugar Maple? Spruce? Tulipwood? Alder? You would be correct if you named any one of these trees. For logging and paper pulp, there are the boreal (evergreen) forests of the mid-north. Sugar maples, found mainly in southeastern Canada, are a significant resource for beautiful furniture, maple syrup, and fiery-colored leafscapes in the autumn. The mixed prairie (tall and short grass) vegetation of the Interior Plains contrasts with the boreal forests of the cooler, moister conditions of the mid-north. Near the polar ice cap, there is little or no vegetation to soften the horizon.

Living among these vegetative areas are many land mammals such as moose, deer, and mink. The lakes, rivers, and streams offer a comfortable habitat for the slippery beavers, singing loons, and Canadian Geese. Polar bears, caribou with snowshoe-like hooves, and ptarmigan (grouse) feel right at home in their Arctic environment! As for the puffin, harp seals, beluga whales, and salmon, they are plentiful in their northern aquatic habitats.


The Grand Banks, a continental shelf lying beneath shallow water off coastal Newfoundland, have been called the “wheat fields” of Newfoundland because of the resource potential. Cool, northern waters from Labrador mix with warmer currents from the south, resulting in one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Yet even their enormous fish populations have proven to be vulnerable. Severe overfishing has resulted in a sharp decrease in the supply of fish in recent years. Newfoundlanders have a renewed interest in the area below the waters, however, as oil has recently been discovered there.

Since the earliest period of European settlement, the St. Lawrence River has been a vital link joining Canadians to the global sea. The river also is an important source of hydroelectric power (electricity produced with the assistance of moving water) for Canada’s increasing population. The hydropower of Niagara Falls, harnessed in the past century, likewise provides energy for homes and factories in addition to energizing the tourism industry. Streams and rivers flowing into Hudson Bay can also be added to the list of hydroelectric producers.

The Fraser River in British Columbia is significant as a lifeline for the run of various salmon species. Its estuary is home for many varieties of aquatic birds, and raptor migrations also define the importance of the Fraser River. No matter where they are located, Canada’s water resources—rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans—offer sustaining qualities for humans and many other living things.

Canada’s Prairie Provinces, as well as basin and river valleys in both the southwest and southeast, contain generally fertile soils. Perhaps one of the most striking soils is the red earth found on Prince Edward Island. The red coloring is due to the presence of iron oxide that “rusts” upon exposure to air.


Forty percent of Canada’s minerals are located in the Canadian Shield. Nickel, iron, uranium, silver, zinc, cobalt, copper, and gold are mined here. Because of the difficulty of access, many deposits remain unexploited; in fact, it is believed that many deposits may not yet have been discovered. Some of these minerals are also found in the territories of the Arctic North. Additionally, nonrenewable resources such as oil and natural gas are prevalent in the western Prairie Provinces and also in the North.

Yukon, meaning “greatest” in the native vocabulary, more properly describes the mineral resources that remain mostly unearthed in this territory. The discovery of gold in the Yukon touched off the famed Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, opening up another frontier to increased settlement. A recently opened diamond mine in the Northwest Territories will eventually contribute perhaps 5 percent of the world’s supply of this gemstone. Coal, silica (used in making windows and other glass objects), and manganese offer a sampling of other mineral resources being excavated from the earth’s crust in Canada.


The condition of the physical environment has emerged as a key concern throughout the world. Realizing their dependence on the environment and its natural resources, Canadians are working to address their environmental concerns. A recent enactment of a revised Canadian Environmental Protection Act focuses on reducing and preventing pollution that results from energy acquisition and energy usage. Renewable energy sources such as hydroelectricity and wind power are gaining increased attention. Flooding of important ecological zones resulting from the building of dams, as well as the accelerating loss of agricultural lands to urban sprawl, remain a concern of Canada’s environmental well-being. Canadians are working to protect the environment for present and future generations.