Status of human footprint in Alberta.

Browse through the status and trend of human footprint in Alberta at the provincial scale, and broken down by administrative and ecological units.


Human land use is pervasive across the planet.

We transform natural landscapes for a variety of purposes—to grow food, to extract timber and fossil fuels, to make way for new housing developments, or to build roads and rail systems to transport people and goods, to name just a few. The extent of human land use in any given area is collectively defined as human footprint.[1,2] Measuring human footprint information is increasingly being used as a land use planning tool to monitor the status of landscapes.[3]

During the past century, the availability of natural resources in Alberta has defined human land use patterns, in both time and space. The province was considered a farming frontier in the late 1800s, and most of Alberta’s human footprint in the central and southern parts of the province is the result of this farming legacy. While agriculture remains important, other human land uses, particularly forestry and oil and gas development, have expanded in recent decades into previously undisturbed areas in the Foothills and Boreal Forest Natural Regions. To meet Alberta’s growing population needs, urban areas have expanded to keep up with industrial growth. As these activities continue, understanding and managing their cumulative effects on biodiversity are priorities in Alberta.

In this report, we summarize the status and trend of human footprint throughout Alberta. We provide an overview of human footprint at the provincial scale but also break down the information on status and trend of human footprint by natural regions, Land use Framework planning region, and by oil sands regions. These results will be updated annually.


Defining human footprint

The ABMI defines human footprint as the visible alteration or conversion of native ecosystems to temporary or permanent residential, recreational, agricultural, or industrial landscapes. The definition includes all areas under human use that have lost their natural cover for extended periods of time, such as cities, roads, agricultural fields, and surface mines. It also includes land that is periodically reset to earlier successional conditions by industrial activities such as forestry cutblocks and seismic lines. Some human land uses, such as grazing, hunting, and trapping, are not yet accounted for in our human footprint analyses.


The ABMI reports on six categories of human footprint:


Areas of annual or perennial cultivation, including crops and tame pasture, as well as confined feeding operations and other high-density livestock areas.


Areas in forested landscapes where timber resource extraction has occurred for industrial purposes, including clear-cut and partial-cut logging methods.


Railways, roadways and trails with hard surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, or gravel; roads or trails without gravel or pavement; and the vegetation strips alongside transportation features.


Man-made waterbodies created for a variety of purposes, such as to extract fill (borrow-pits, water treatment), water livestock (dugouts), transport water (canals), meet municipal needs (water supply and sewage), and store water (reservoirs).


Residences, buildings, and disturbed vegetation and substrate associated with urban and rural settlements, such as housing, shopping centres, industrial areas, golf courses, and recreation areas, as well as bare ground cleared for industrial and commercial development.


Areas where vegetation or soil has been disturbed by the creation of mine sites, peat mines, pipelines, seismic lines, transmission lines, well sites, and wind-generation facilities. This footprint type is called “energy footprint” because the majority of this footprint type is associated with the energy industry.


Measuring and reporting on Alberta's human footprint

The ABMI monitors the status of Alberta’s human footprint using satellite imagery at two spatial scales:


The ABMI uses human footprint data measured annually at a 1:5,000 scale to track changes in human footprint over time. Detailed annual samples of human footprint are measured in a 3 × 7-km rectangular area centred near each of the ABMI’s 1,656 sites, which when summed across all sites amounts to about 5% of the province’s land surface. ABMI human footprint trend data are available from 1999 to 2016, except for 2000-2003 (inclusive). Trend data and the metadata associated with these data can be accessed here.

FIGURE: A detailed inventory of human footprint is created annually for a 3 × 7 km area located near each ABMI site.


At the provincial scale, the ABMI merges 20 human footprint sub-layers (based on 117 feature types) into a single integrated layer by applying a specific order of precedence to create the ABMI Human Footprint Inventory (HFI), circa 2016. To view the distribution of each of the sub-layers in Alberta, hover over each of the layers in the table below. Some of these 20 sub-layers are created by the ABMI and Government of Alberta as part of the Alberta Human Footprint Monitoring Program. We use the HFI 2016 for three purposes in this report: to generate maps of human footprint; to standardize the 3 × 7-km trend estimates before reporting; and, to calculate total footprint in regions where there are insufficient sample sites to estimate trend using the 3 × 7-km data. This product is updated approximately every two years; these data and the metadata associated with this product are available here.

TABLE: Order of precedence applied to human footprint sub-layers to create the ABMI HFI (circa 2016). Hover over a sub-layer to view its distribution.

1 Reservoirs
2 Borrow Pits, Sumps, Dugouts and Lagoons
3 Non-vegetated Impermeable Surfaces (Roads)
4 Rail Lines Hard Surface
5 Canals
6 Vegetated Surfaces of Roads, Trails and Railways
7 Mine Sites
8 Industrial Sites
9 Well Sites (Energy) ACTIVE
10 Landfill
11 Other Vegetated Facilities and Recreation
12 Wind Generation Facility
13 Transmission Lines
14 CFO and other High Density Livestock
15 Urban and Rural Residential
16 Well Sites (Energy) ABANDONED
17 Cultivation
18 Cut Blocks
19 Pipelines
20 Seismic Lines

To report on the status of human footprint, the ABMI presents the percentage of land directly altered by human activities, ranging from 0% (no visible human footprint) to 100% (completely modified by human footprint). All 2016 trend estimates of human footprint are standardized to the 2016 human footprint value from the Human Footprint Inventory before reporting. The ABMI Human Footprint Inventory, circa 2016, was used to generate the maps of human footprint presented in this report. It is also used to calculate total footprint in regions where there are insufficient sample sites to estimate trend using the 3 × 7-km samples (e.g., the Surface Mineable Region).