Growing Ascension

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Ascension_Island_Location

1,000 miles from Africa and 1,500 miles from South America lies Ascension Island. A 34 square mile island populated with plants and animals from across the globe. Most of the life was brought to the island by botanist Joseph Hooker with the encouragement of Charles Darwin.

A map of the island drawn by Lieut. Robert Campbell R.N. during the Beagle's visit.
A map of the island drawn by Lieut. Robert Campbell R.N. during the Beagle’s visit.

Darwin visited the island in 1836 on the Beagle and described the life he found:

Near this coast nothing grows; further inland, an occasional green castor-oil plant, and a few grasshoppers, true friends of the desert, may be met with. Some grass is scattered over the surface of the elevated region, and the whole much resembles the worse parts of the Welsh mountains.

This visit would be much after the island already had a settlement and there were already newly introduced creatures. The island was discovered in 1501 by the Portuguese and only a few years later became populated by goats left there by sailors (as a future resource). Whatever plant life existed then would have been placed in immediate peril. So by the time Darwin arrived, there were very few native plants left.

Lava fields on Ascension Islands
Lava fields on Ascension Islands

After reading the proof for Darwin’s book The Voyage of the Beagle, Hooker became inspired to make a voyage himself. On his return, he became good friends with Darwin and the two hatched a plan: populate the island with new life. The first big problem to hurdle would be capturing any rain before it ran off the island. To solve this, they would plant trees.

Photo of Ascension Island trees by Les Smith
Photo of Ascension Island trees by Les Smith

Hooker asked the Royal Navy to bring trees from Kew Gardens to the island. After being planted, the trees would improve the surrounding soil and help capture rainfall. From 1850 onwards the Royal Navy brought not just trees, but plants from botanical gardens in Argentina, Europe, and South Africa. Today, bamboo, Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, and more thickly cover the highest point of the island. So much so that the mountain is now called Green Mountain!

Photo of a (now) guest house on Green Mountain by Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD
Photo of a (now) guest house on Green Mountain by Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD

It is one of the largest artificially produced ecosystems on Earth and was created much faster than nature ever could do the same. Where thousands upon thousands of years are normally required for such diversity to emerge, Darwin and Hooker created their own in just 50 years. The project had guava and bananas thriving next to sparrows, livestock, and the native crabs. All of these are still on the island today.

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Today there are 880 people living on the island for several reasons. It is used as the base for BBC World Service’s Atlantic Relay Station which allows for their signal to reach vast distances. A station owned by the European Space Agency tracks their rockets where other stations cannot. NASA operates a telescope there to track debris in orbit, preventing hazard or even catastrophe in space. Of the five (yes, only five) antennas that control the GPS system, one is located on this island. Without Darwin and Hooker, the island would have become a barren rock and left nothing to build a permanent settlement on.

Music: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor by Camille Saint-Saëns

2 thoughts on “Growing Ascension

    1. Yes! And a few researchers were looking at this island for help with Mars until they discovered perchlorates in the soil. Can’t plant things on Mars when you have soil filled with, basically, jet fuel.

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