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. 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 solely populated by polar bears and is tiny with an area roughly 25 meters by 45 meters.  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.

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 is 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 take in the 1970s. From Gray, 2000.

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.

Landsat Island captured by Landsat 8 in 2014. Image: NASA.

Landsat Island in the remote area of the Newfoundland & Labrador province.  Satellite image captured by Landsat 8 in 2014. Image: NASA.

References

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

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

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