At age 86, Betty Fleming was on a cruise along the Labrador Coast of Canada. The ship was approaching an area all too familiar to her: a small island she helped discover when she was a cartographer for the Surveys and Mapping branch in Canada’s Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources.
“I want to tell you about a small off-shore island that we will be passing as we round the top end of Labrador on this trip,” wrote Fleming in her notes, which she used to deliver a presentation to her 90 fellow passengers on her leisure Adventure Canada cruise. “Landsat Island has garnered quite a bit of attention since it was first mapped in 1976. Don’t expect to see it though, as it is in the middle of an area of reefs and shoals.”
More than 45 years ago, Fleming was surveying the same waters, but via satellite imagery from the Landsat 1 satellite. Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1, later named Landsat, was an early Earth-sensing satellite launched by the United States. Before the satellite even launched, Canada built a receiving station to receive the satellite data for the orbits over Canada.
The 1970s was an exciting time for Fleming, as acquiring and analyzing satellite imagery was new and thrilling. As Canada received imagery from Landsat roughly every two weeks, Fleming had the task of seeing where the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources might use the imagery for mapping Canada, particularly for mapping wilderness areas and building new roads. At the time, the hydrographic charts for the northern coast of Labrador were also quite old and based on surveys by the British Navy in 1911 and on questionable notes made by passing sailors.
In those early Landsat days, Fleming was inspecting imagery of the coast from Landsat 1 when she spotted several small white specks. At first, she assumed they were icebergs, but some of the specks kept appearing in the same position over several images. She knew some of them had to be permanent features.
She passed the information to the Canadian Hydrographic Survey Division, which sent the CCS Baffin to visit about 20 such locations in the following summer. Most of the locations were insignificant rocks partly submerged in the sea—Fleming called them “rocks awash”– but one of the spots was actually an island. Fleming and the Landsat satellite had discovered an uncharted Canadian island. It eventually became known as Landsat Island.
Landsat Island was not too spectacular. It was rocky and only about half the size of a football field. From a satellite perspective, though, this island was notable because of its size – or rather lack of it. Earth science researchers were impressed that a satellite could detect such a small feature. The island was also interesting, says Fleming, because it had a bearing on the international boundary: it was the most easterly point of land at that part of the coast.
Fleming has never seen Landsat Island and does not expect to. She never went out on the ships or helicopters that were sent to verify the existence of the island. That section of the Labrador coast is “very dangerous,” and her tourist cruise in 2011 is probably the closest she is going to get to the place she discovered.
But that doesn’t faze her. Her accomplishments go beyond one island. Before her stint analyzing Landsat data, she was a pilot and camera operator. She studied at the newly formed Netherlands International Training Centre for Aerial Photography and Earth Sciences and became a specialist on the application of aerial photography to photogrammetric mapping—using photographs to measure and map areas. She also instituted a index map where images could be ordered by orbit number and image number, which was used in Canada.
Then there was simply being a working woman from the 1950s to 1980s, which Fleming says is a story in itself. As a married woman, she too-often ran into people who told her “You’ll leave to have a baby,” or “You’ll take a job from a man.”
When she chose to enter the all-male Surveys and Mapping Department, she had an entry level job at which they hired boys out of high school—despite the fact she had a university degree, post-graduate training, and experience in the aerial survey business. She always used the name “E.A. Fleming” when she prepared a technical paper because “using the name Elizabeth on any technical paper would have been a kiss of death. It would immediately be dropped in the editor’s waste basket without opening it.” She won several awards for her published papers, much to the chagrin of one man who did not find out she was a woman until she accepted an award.
“It took me 20 years to get to the level I should have been hired at, but that doesn’t change the fact that I really enjoyed my work,” wrote Fleming.
After a 30 year-long career in aerial photography and mapping and two happy marriages, Fleming is now retired at the age of 93 and resides in Ottawa, Canada.
Read more at:
The Island Named After a Satellite (NASA Earth Observatory)
Landsat Island (NASA Landsat Science)