The puny Labrador island that punched above its weight

The little island that could. Tiny Landsat I. made Canada a bigger country.In the frigid North Atlantic, about 20 km. east of Labrador’s northernmost coastline, there’s a rocky island so small it can’t be seen on Google Earth or Google Maps. It measures just 25 by 45 meters—about half a football field. It was first detected in 1973 by Elizabeth A. Flemming, a researcher with the Topographical Survey of Canada, who was poring over raw data from NASA’s Landsat 1 satellite, looking for undiscovered geographical features.

Finding an island this size off northern Labrador is harder than you might think. Clouds shroud the area most of the summer, and ice disguises its rocky outcrops in winter. Landsat passes over the site less than twice a month, so unobstructed images are hard to come by.

Frank Hall of the Canadian Hydrographic Service verified the island’s existence and precise location three years later when a survey helicopter lowered him toward it in what proved to be a harrowing adventure. Hall never quite made landfall. Scott Reid, a Canadian Alliance Party MP for Lanark—Carleton, recounted the incident colorfully in a 2001 Parliamentary debate:

He 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.

Hall also snapped the photo at the top of this post. He wanted to call the outcrop Polar Island to commemorate the mishap, but Flemming successfully lobbied for Landsat Island, in honor of the satellite that first revealed its existence.

Because an ocean boundary can, in some circumstances, be based on a straight line between the furthest seaward points of a country’s terrestrial features, the existence of a tiny island can have an out-sized impact. Because of its location, Landsat Island, measuring barely one-tenth of a hectare, increased Canada’s size by 68 square kilometers.

[H/T:  Bruce Hatcher]

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