The distribution of dinoflagellate cyst (dinocyst) assemblages in surface sediment samples from 677 sites of the northern North Atlantic, Arctic and sub-Arctic seas is discussed with emphasis on the relationships with sea-surface parameters, including sea-ice cover, salinity and temperature of the coldest and warmest months. Difficulties in developing a circum-Arctic data base include the morphological variation within taxa (e.g. Operculodinium centrocarpum, Islandinium? cezare and Polykrikos sp.), which probably relate to phenotypic adaptations to cold and/or low salinity environments. Sparse hydrographical data, together with large interannual variations of temperature and salinity in surface waters of Arctic seas constitute additional limitations. Nevertheless, the use of the best-analogue technique with this new dinocyst data base including 677 samples permits quantitative reconstruction of sea-surface conditions at the scale of the northern North Atlantic and the Arctic domain. The error of prediction calculated from modern assemblages is ±1.3 °C and ±1.8 °C for the temperature of February and August, respectively, ±1.8 for the salinity, and ±1.5 months yr−1 for the sea-ice cover. Application to late Quaternary sequences from the western and eastern subpolar North Atlantic (Labrador Sea and Barents Sea) provide reconstructions compatible with those obtained using the previous dinocyst data base (n = 371), which mainly included modern data from the northern North Atlantic. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.