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Because of Canada’s wealth of arctic terrain, it gets to witness the effects of climate change firsthand. The average annual temperature has increased by 0.9°C over the past 50 years. And while that might go unnoticed by someone in Ottawa – other than prompting a few less days of toque-wearing in winter – residents of northern Canada are seeing some strange sights indeed.

Take the Yukon. As the permafrost thaws around Herschel Island, long-buried coffins are floating to the melting earth’s surface. In Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay’s frigid coast, polar bear now arrive sooner, stay later and sniff closer to town. Shorter winters have dissolved their ice-based seal-hunting habitat, and all of a sudden, nearby humans are starting to look like juicy T-bones.

Climate change also has bizarre economic ramifications. In the Northwest Territories, the ice roads that carry trucks to the diamond mines are melting, which means supplies have to be flown in – a much costlier (and more polluting) method of transport. And the Olympics are headed to Vancouver in 2010, but will there be enough snow for the slopes and bobsleigh runs?

Then there’s the issue of warmer waters changing fish migration patterns (sockeye salmon have been spotted in the Arctic), warmer weather allowing insects to hatch and infest BC’s forests, and the list goes on.

When to go

You can visit Canada at any time of year, but most people arrive in summer when temperatures are pleasant and much of the action moves outdoors. Just what constitutes ‘summer, ’ though, varies by region. In southern Canada, it generally refers to the period between Victoria Day (late May) and Labour Day (early September). In the northern regions, however, summer starts as late as mid-June and ends, often abruptly, with the first snowfall in early to mid-September.

In most areas, March to May and September to October bring fewer tourists and often surprisingly pleasant weather. Fall, which finds forests cloaked in a spectacular mantle of color, is a great time to visit.

Canadian winters are long, cold and dark. With most outlying attractions closed, your explorations are pretty much limited to the ski resorts and cities. Québec City, Toronto and Winnipeg are among those cities hosting big winter carnivals.