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 road and rail systems to transport people and goods. 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 and change 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 as well as the density of linear features throughout Alberta. We provide an overview of human footprint at the provincial scale but also break down the information by Natural Region, Land-use Framework Planning Region, and by Oil Sands Region. These results are 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.

Measuring Human Footprint

Measuring 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 centered near each of the ABMI’s 1,656 long-term sites, which when summed across all sites amounts to about 5% of the province’s land surface. ABMI's human footprint trend data are available from 1999 to 2017, 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 2018. In addition to the polygonal representation of human footprint feature types, the HFI 2018 dataset also represents the centerlines of linear features (polylines), including pipelines, roads, railways, transmission lines, and seismic lines.

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. In this report, we use the HFI 2018 to:

  • report on the current status of human footprint;
  • generate maps of human footprint;
  • standardize the 3 × 7-km trend estimates before reporting; 
  • calculate total footprint in regions where there are insufficient sample sites to estimate trends 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. 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

Measuring Recovery of Successional Footprint

Recovery of Alberta's human footprint

As a successional footprint, forestry recovers with time after disturbance. To account for this recovery, we summarize “recovered forestry”—defined as Effective Forestry Footprint Area in this report—prorating the effects on biodiversity of older harvested areas using biotic recovery curves based on a literature review.[4]


Biodiversity recovery values for forestry are based on a review of the recovery of forest species in harvest areas of different ages.[4] A newly harvested area is considered to be 0% recovered, while a mature forest is 100% recovered. Field studies of the abundance of species in harvest areas of different ages were used to fill in the recovery curve between those two benchmarks. The results showed faster recovery in deciduous forest than in conifer forest, so we used different recovery curves for the two forest types. We do not yet have information on the recovery of other types of human footprint.


We report on Effective Human Footprint Area (EHFA) for biodiversity by pro-rating the area of a harvest area for how much it has recovered, based on its age and stand type (deciduous or conifer). For example, a 10-ha harvest area that is at an age where it is 36.8% recovered would have an EHFA of 6.32 ha (=10ha * (100-36.8%)). The idea is that the harvest area would have biodiversity equivalent to 6.32 ha of a recent, unrecovered clearcut plus 3.68 ha of mature forest.

To do the calculation, we use GIS to summarize the area of each harvest area, its age (years since harvest), and stand type (deciduous or conifer). We group the ages into classes of 0-9 yr, 10-19 yr, 20-39 yr, 40-59 yr, 60-79 yr, and 80+ yr. Based on the age class and stand type, we multiply the area of each harvest unit by the EHFA factor in the table below, to give the EHFA of that unit.

Table: Footprint Recovery. Biodiversity recovery of deciduous and conifer stands by age class. EHFA = Effective Human Footprint Area.

Stand Type Age Class (yr) Biodiversity Recovery (%) EHFA Factor (%)
Deciduous 0-9 0.0 100.0
  10-19 36.8 63.2
  20-39 58.2 41.8
  40-59 83.1 16.9
  60-79 93.2 6.8
  80+ 100.0 0.0
Coniferous 0-9 0.0 100.0
  10-19 8.0 92.0
  20-39 24.8 75.2
  40-59 64.7 35.3
  60-79 83.9 16.1
  80+ 100.0 0.0

Members of the University of Calgary's Applied Geospatial Research Group contribute to the ongoing research around footprint recovery. 

Reporting on Human Footprint

Human footprint categories for reporting

Status & Trend Reporting Categories

The status of human footprint was reported using summaries of human footprint categories from the HFI 2018. The trend in human footprint for each area of interest was assessed using the 3 × 7-km detailed inventory of human footprint available from 1999 to 2017, except for 2000-2003. Status and trend are presented for total human footprint and the following six reporting categories:

 Agriculture Footprint

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

Energy Footprint
           (Mines, Wells, & Other Energy Features)

Areas where vegetation or soil has been disturbed by footprint types associated with the energy sector, including mine sites, peat mines, pipelines, seismic lines, transmission lines, well sites, and wind-generation facilities.

Forestry Footprint

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

Transportation Footprint

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

Urban/Industrial Footprint
           (Urban, Rural, & Industrial Features)

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. In some areas in the OSR, such as the Mineable Region, the footprint in this category is predominantly industrial facilities associated with energy development.

Human-created Waterbodies

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).

Recovery Reporting Categories

When reporting on trends for forestry footprint and total human footprint, we also report on the area of their respective footprints after reducing the area of older forestry footprint based on how recovered it is. We report on two categories of recovering human footprint including: 

Effective Forestry Footprint

The area of forestry footprint prorated for how much it has recovered for biodiversity, based on harvest area age and stand type (deciduous or conifer). A newly harvested area is considered to be 0% recovered, while mature forest is 100% recovered.

Effective Human Footprint

Same definition as total human footprint but replacing the area of forestry footprint with the calculated Effective Forestry Footprint area.

Linear Footprint Reporting Categories

Linear disturbance is summarized as the density of linear footprint in km per km2. Linear density is presented for total linear density, and by five linear feature types:

Seismic Line (Conventional)

Seismic lines constructed prior to the use of Low-Impact-Seismic (LIS) construction methods. Conventional seismic lines were constructed using older technology that required the lines to be between 5 to 8 meters in width to allow equipment to operate on the lines.

Transmission Lines

Utility corridor greater than 10 meters wide with poles, towers, and lines for transmitting high voltage (> 69 kV) electricity.


Corridors created for railways, as well as the physical clearing around the railway. 


A line of underground and overground pipes, used for the delivery of petrochemicals, as well as the physical clearing around the pipeline.

Roads Major

All roadways paved with asphalt or concrete, roads surfaced with gravel and which serve as a main access route, as well as airplane runways and interchange ramps.

Roads Minor 

Roadways surfaced with dirt and/or low vegetation which serve as minor access routes.


The maps used to visualize human footprint in this report are based on the GIS Inventory of Provincial Human Footprint, circa 2018.


1. Sanderson E.W. J. Malanding M.A. Levy K.H. Redford A.V. Wannebo and G. Woolmer. 2002. The human footprint and the last of the wild: the human footprint is a global map of human influence on the land surface, which suggests that human beings are stewards of nature, whether we like it or not. Bioscience 52(10):891-904

2. Leu M. S.E. Hanser and S.T. Knick. 2008. The human footprint in the west: a large-scale analysis of anthropogenic impacts. Ecological Applications 18(5):1119-1139

3. Haines A.M. M. Leu L.K. Svancara J.M. Scott and K.P. Reese. 2008. A theoretical approach to using human footprint data to assess landscape level conservation efforts. Conservation Letters 1:165-172

4. Huggard, D. and L. Kremsater. 2015. Human footprint recovery for the Biodiversity Monitoring Framework - Quantitative Synthesis. Unpublished Report.