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Alberta, province in western Canada, the most westerly of the three Prairie provinces, which also include Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Alberta is a land of contrasts. Rolling plains cover much of the province, but in the southwest, the rugged Rocky Mountains and its foothills form part of Alberta’s boundary with British Columbia. In the north the land is covered with forests and dotted with lakes and streams. On the vast Alberta plains, oil rigs rise above golden wheat fields. Industrial cities such as Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, and Calgary, the largest city, thrive in the midst of rich agricultural lands.
Many of Alberta’s early settlers were of British descent, and Alberta’s flag and coat of arms bear the cross of Saint George, a symbol of Alberta’s link with the United Kingdom. Alberta received its name in 1882 from the Marquess of Lorne, the governor-general of Canada. Lorne named the territory for his wife, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, a daughter of Queen Victoria of Britain. Alberta became a province in 1905.
Alberta possesses Canada’s largest deposits of oil and natural gas, and the province has prospered with the rapid expansion of the petroleum industry after World War II (1939-1945). The manufacture of petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum and natural gas) is a leading industry in Alberta. Cattle ranchers and farmers settled Alberta’s foothills and prairies, and the province remains an important producer of livestock and grain. Alberta draws large numbers of tourists each year, with attractions such as Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes national parks, and the world-famous Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Alberta has earned the nickname Sunny Alberta because it enjoys more hours of sunshine each year than any other province.
Except for the mountain areas, summers throughout the province are quite warm. Winters are long and extremely cold. In July, average daily temperatures range from about 16°C (about 60°F) along the northern boundary to about 21°C (about 70°F) in the south. In the extreme southeastern section of the province, temperatures of 43°C (110°F) have been recorded. In January, average daily temperatures range from about -14°C (about 6°F) at Grande Prairie to about -9°C (about 16°F) at Calgary. Temperatures of -49°C (-57°F) have been recorded, though rarely, at Edmonton.
Almost all parts of the province occasionally experience warm westerly winds during the winter and early spring. This is particularly true of southern Alberta, where these warm winds are called chinooks. During the cold days of winter, when the sky is gray and overcast, Albertans often look toward the mountains for the Chinook Arch, a curved patch of blue sky that indicates warm winds are on their way. Chinooks will sometimes blow for several days. In some years they occur frequently and exert considerable influence on average winter temperatures.
Alberta is generally a dry region, especially in the south, where mountains trap air masses moving inland from the Pacific Ocean and drain them of moisture. Alberta’s generally dry, clear air provides the province with ample sunshine. Precipitation from both rain and snow ranges from less than 330 mm (13 in) per year in the southeast to about 500 mm (about 20 in) per year in a narrow belt across the south central part of the province, near Edmonton. In the southeast the yearly amount varies considerably, and severe droughts occur every few seasons. Snowfall is heavy only in the mountains. Rain is most plentiful between April and July. Although the length of the growing season is limited by damaging frosts, favorable growing conditions make it possible to harvest crops before the frosts arrive.
The exploitation of primary resources has always been at the heart of Alberta’s economy. In the late 18th century trappers came to Alberta in search of animal pelts, and for the next century the fur trade was the leading economic activity in the territory. The development of agriculture and industry began in the 1880s with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and until 1930 there was a rapid expansion of wheat farming, cattle ranching, and the food-processing industry. In the 1930s, however, the worldwide depression and devastating droughts resulted in severe economic hardship for Alberta. Agriculture remained the leading economic activity in Alberta until a large oil field was discovered near Leduc in 1947; soon even larger oil fields were found elsewhere. The discovery of oil was a turning point for Alberta. It led to the development of mining, refining, and petrochemical industries that helped diversify the economy.
Alberta’s economy expanded rapidly in the 1970s with the sharp rise in world prices for oil. Alberta’s service sector also grew rapidly, notably finance and business services, which expanded along with the burgeoning petroleum industry. Lower oil prices in the 1980s brought an economic downturn and curtailed a decade-long construction and financial boom in the province. In the late 1980s the provincial government began to aggressively promote forestry industries, especially the manufacture of pulp and paper, as a way to further diversify the economy.
Today, Alberta is one of the major financial centers of western Canada, and the service sector accounts for the largest share of Alberta’s gross domestic product (GDP, a measure of the value of all goods and services produced annually). However, mining, which includes the exploitation of oil and natural gas reserves, is the province’s single most important industry. Alberta’s economic fortunes therefore remain strongly linked to global commodity price fluctuations that are beyond its control. During the 1990s and early 2000s, robust growth in the energy sector and the expansion of such industries as forest products, petrochemicals, food processing, and tourism and business services, gave Alberta the fastest-growing economy and one of the lowest unemployment rates in Canada. In 2006 Alberta’s GDP was C$240 billion.
The two largest cities of Alberta are Calgary and Edmonton. Edmonton, with a population of 730,372, is the provincial capital and one of the province’s two leading industrial centers. It also ranks as one of the principal commercial and transportation hubs in western Canada and is a center for public administration, education, and medical services. Calgary, with a population of 988,193, is the chief commercial, industrial, and transportation center of southern Alberta and is one of the major financial centers of western Canada. Calgary is home to extensive business and professional services, a vibrant high-technology sector, and the headquarters of many large energy corporations.
Red Deer, with a population of 82,772 in 2006, was the province’s third largest city at the 2001 census. It is situated in an oil and gas producing area between Calgary and Edmonton, but its primary industries are based on local farm products. Other cities include Lethbridge, an industrial city and the trade center for an agricultural area southeast of Calgary; Medicine Hat, situated on the main line of the Canadian Pacific and site of the largest industrial complex of southeastern Alberta; St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton; Fort McMurray, a railhead on the Athabasca River in the northeast; and Grande Prairie, a center for agriculture, forest products, and petroleum refining in northwestern Alberta.
"Alberta," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008
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