Facts about Athabasca River Basin


Rivers are more than ribbons of water running from the highlands to the lowlands. They are integral parts of the ecosystems that surround them and are vital to the humans and other organisms that inhabit their basins.

The Athabasca River starts in the Rocky Mountains near Mount Columbia (elevation 3747 metres) and flows northeast for 1,400 kilometres until it empties into Lake Athabasca (elevation 208 metres). From there the waters flow northwest through the Mackenzie River system to the Arctic Ocean.

The Athabasca River Basin is defined here as including the Athabasca River and all of its tributaries up until the waters enter Lake Athabasca. It includes the drainage system of the Clearwater River in Saskatchewan, but does not include other water sources that empty into Lake Athabasca or the Lake Claire system.

The northern part of the river basin is near 58 degrees N; southern, 52 degrees N; western 109 degrees W; eastern, 119 degrees W.

The basin of the Athabasca River covers 138,412 square kilometers. Of this, 89% is in Alberta and 11% is in Saskatchewan.

The Athabasca River system is comprised of 94 rivers and a minimum of 150 named creeks and 153 lakes. Near Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca, St. Claire, and Peace River systems form the largest fresh water delta in the world.

Of the river systems of Alberta, the Athabasca River has the second largest discharge (next to the Peace River). The mean annual discharge is approximately 24,000,000,000 cubic metres. The mean annual discharge of the Clearwater River alone is 2,754,000,000 cubic metres.

The Athabasca River Basin encompasses the following ecoregions (natural regions):

  1. Rocky Mountain (Alpine, Subalpine, Montain);
  2. Boreal Foothills;
  3. Boreal Mixed Wood (dry and wet);
  4. Boreal Uplands;
  5. Boreal Lowlands;
  6. Canadian Shield (Athabasca Plains).

Except for the mountain regions, virtually all the soil in the Athabasca River Basin is Gray Luvisol.

In 2001, there were 140,452 people living in the river basin. Most of these people are unaware of how their lives and livelihoods are dependent upon the health of the Athabasca River. Science Outreach - Athabasca hopes to generate some interest in these people about the natural features and forces that are at work throughout the river basin and roles that humans play in this environment. We also hope that these people will use this information when they make decisions about the future of the river and its surroundings.


In the geologic past, some parts of the contemporary Athabasca River system drained south along the Tawatinaw River Valley and east within the Saskatchewan River system.

The Athabasca River flows through all seven major geological regions of Alberta:

  1. Paleozoic and Mesozoic deposits in the Rocky Mountains;
  2. Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic formations in the foothills;
  3. Tertiary deposits distal from the foothills;
  4. Upper Cretaceous deposits further north;
  5. Lower Cretaceous deposits near Fort McMurray;
  6. Devonian deposits further north;
  7. Precambian Shield in the Lake Athabasca basin.


Byfield, T., editor. 1984. The Atlas of Alberta: a Special Project of Alberta Report. Edmonton: Interwest Publications.

Canada Department of Energy, Mines and Resources. 1980. Canada Gazetteer Atlas. Ottawa: Supplies and Services Canada and Macmillan of Canada.

Government of Alberta and University of Alberta. 1969. Atlas of Alberta. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press in assistance with University of Toronto Press.

Kellerhals, R., C.R. Neill and D.I. Bray. 1972. Hydraulic and Geomorphic Characteristics of Rivers in Alberta. Edmonton: Alberta Cooperative Research Program in Highway and River Engineering; Research Council of Alberta River Engineering and Surface Hydrology Report 72-1.

Mitchell, Patricia and Ellie Prepas, editors. 1990. Atlas of Alberta Lakes. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Statistics Canada. 2000. Human Activity and the Environment 2000. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, Environmental Accounts and Statistics Division, System of National Accounts.

Early Explorers

Three early explorers of the Athabasca River Basin were:

Peter Pond (1778),
Alexander Mackenzie (1789-1793), and
David Thompson (1807-1812).

Science Outreach Athabasca - September 27, 2012

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