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Climate and geography

The sun shines throughout our cold winters and warm summers, illuminating the mountains in the west, and the plains to the north, centre and south. The Rocky Mountains are perhaps Alberta's most recognizable geographic feature. Their rugged and spectacular scenery attract visitors from all over the world. Much of Alberta's oil and gas are found beneath the foothills that lie along the base of the Rockies.

The rest of the province is housed on a great plain, or prairie, which Alberta shares with Saskatchewan on the east, and with the state of Montana to the south. The plains are not totally flat. Their surface has been gouged and twisted by the action of massive glaciers that once covered the province. What is now Alberta lay buried under some 2,000 metres of ice only 8,000 or 10,000 years ago. The southern plain, which was once covered in tall grass, is today a checkerboard of farms.

The badlands of Southeastern Alberta are unique. They are very dry and have little vegetation. Streams and rain have eroded the soft rocks, leaving bluffs, gullies, and multicoloured layers of stone. The Red Deer River has cut a deep, wide valley through the badlands, exposing the fossils of plants and animals that lived in Alberta millions of years ago, including the famous dinosaurs.

Northern Alberta is home to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada's largest national park, and a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site. Wood Buffalo National Park has the world's largest free-roaming bison herd, and the last natural nesting site for the whooping crane.

Alberta's cool winter climate is a result of its northern location, which exposes residents to cold arctic air masses from the north. In contrast, summers are usually warm. Regardless of the season, Alberta's skies are often sunny.

The Rocky Mountains cast a "rain shadow" over much of Alberta. As the moist air from the Pacific Ocean rises to pass over the mountains on its way to Alberta, it is cooled, and rain or snow fall on the Pacific side of the mountains. As the air descends on Alberta, it gains heat and produces warm, dry winds.

Alberta is famous for its chinook winds, which sweep into southern Alberta several times each winter. This dry, warm wind can rapidly lift the province out of a deep freeze. During one chinook, which reached Pincher Creek on January 1962, temperatures soared from -19°C to +22°C in one hour.  Source: Phillips, D. 1990. The Climate of Canada. Catalogue No. En56-1/1990E. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services of Canada.

Alberta facts


Geographic location: lies between the 49th and 60th parallels, and is bounded on the west by British Columbia, on the south by the state of Montana, on the east by Saskatchewan and on the north by the Northwest Territories.

Area: 661,190 sq. km (6.6% of national total, roughly twice the area of Japan)

Dimensions: 1,223 km north to south; 660 km east to west

Highest point: Mount Columbia (3,747 m) in the Rocky Mountains along the southwest border

Lowest point: Slave River (152 m) in Wood Buffalo National Park in the northeast

Largest lakes: Lake Claire and Lake Athabasca

Largest lake entirely in Alberta: Lake Claire (1346 sq. km)

Longest rivers: Peace River and Athabasca River, which flow from the Rockies north to the Arctic Ocean

Oldest surface landscape: extreme northeastern part, east of the Slave and lower Athabasca rivers, where crystalline rocks formed during the Precambrian era 4,000 to 544 million years ago appear at the surface.


Precipitation ranges from 30 cm in the southeast to 40 - 45 cm in the north, except from the foothills region, where accumulations reach 55 - 60 cm annually.

Sunshine ranges from 1,900 hours annually in the north to 2,300 hours near Lethbridge in the south. Air funnelling through the Rockies also produces warm, dry chinook winds, especially prevalent in southwestern Alberta, that can raise temperatures dramatically within hours.

Temperatures in January range from -8°C in the south to -24°C in the north, and in July from 20°C in the south to 16°C in the north. Source: 2003 Canadian Encyclopedia