How This Remote Island Inhabited by Polar Bears Became Known as Landsat Island

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Even in our modern age of technology and imaging systems, parts of our world can still literally fly under the radar. Until satellites could image the Earth in incredible detail, there were still aspects of our world’s geography that we didn’t know about.

One of these overlooked areas was an island off the coast of Labrador, Canada.

How Landsat Island Was Discovered

This small, uninhabited island, was named Landsat after the satellite that first made its presence known to the rest of the world.

Discovered in 1976 in imagery captured by Landsat 1, the island (60° 10′ 37″N, 64° 02′ 30″W) is a small barren rock off the northern coast of Labrador.

A cartographer, Betty Flemming, working for the Surveys and Mapping branch in Canada’s Department of Energy, Mines was the one to discover the island. She had been analyzing Landsat 1 images and noticed some white flecks that always appeared in the same position.

Flemming passed along her notes about the white spots on the images to the Canadian Hydrographic Survey Division which sent out the CCS Baffin to inspect the locations. One of those locations turned out to be Landsat Island, a previously undiscovered island.

While the size of Landsat Island is small, its discovery at the time was notable for two reasons.

First, it demonstrated to earth observation researchers how small of a land mass satellite technology at the time could capture.

Second, the location of Landsat Island is the most easterly point along the northern coast of Labrador. Discovering this uncharted Canadian island extended the border of Canada further out, adding an additional 68 square kilometers to its territorial waters.

During that same year, Landsat also imaged parts of the Canadian coastline and revealed many different features that clarified maps and navigational charts of the coast.

Verifying Landsat Island

One of the factors that kept the discovery of Landsat Island in the dark was its difficulty to access by water.

Although it is only 20 kilometers away from the Canadian coast, approaching the island was challenging due to the cold, rough seas, and a lack of suitable and safe landing spots on the island’s coastline.

To verify the satellite’s discovery of the island, a researcher, Dr. Frank Hall, was lowered from a helicopter down to the island. He was met with a frozen landscape and, to his surprise, a polar bear waiting for him.

Having verified the existence of the island, the researcher promptly hauled himself back up to the helicopter and away from the island’s hungry residents.  

Scott Reid recounted the tale during a parliament session in Canada:

[Dr. Hall] “was strapped into a harness and lowered from a helicopter down to the island. This was quite a frozen island and it was completely covered with ice. As he was lowered out of the helicopter a polar bear took a swat at him. The bear was on the highest point on the island and it was hard for him to see because it was white. Hall yanked at the cable and got himself hauled up. He said he very nearly became the first person to end his life on Landsat Island.”

Photograph of Landsat Island take in the 1970s. From Gray, 2000.
Photograph of Landsat Island taken in 1997. From Gray, 2000.

Landsat Island is solely populated by polar bears and contains no vegetation. The island is a small barren rock with an area roughly 25 meters by 45 meters (about half the size of a football field).

Capturing clear imagery of Landsat Island is a challenge due to the conditions in the Labrador Sea which is covered in clouds during the summer and ice in the winter.

Landsat Island was named after the Landsat 1 satellite.  Landsat 8 captured this image of Landsat Island on July 15, 2014.  Image: NASA, public domain.
Landsat Island was named after the Landsat 1 satellite. Landsat 8 captured this image of Landsat Island on July 15, 2014. Image: NASA, public domain.

Images from the Landsat satellites have found unknown lakes, reefs, and islands all around the world. Satellite images allowed cartographers and geographers the chance to verify the data they had about the world around us and to clarify some missing information about the Earth.

Landsat’s imaging technologies will continue to allow researchers to discover new and exciting things about Earth.

References

Gray, D. H. (2000). Discovering Rocks off Labrador: A Photo EssayIBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin.

Patel, K. (2018, April 9). The island named after a satellite. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91972/the-island-named-after-a-satellite

Patel, K. (2018, August 22). Earth matters. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2018/08/22/the-unsung-woman-who-discovered-the-unknown-island/

Rocchio, L.  (2006, April 19).  Landsat Island.  NASA

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