Ascension Island – Darwin’s Best-Kept Secret
How does a lonely island lost in the South Atlantic go from a barren, rocky wasteland to containing a lush cloud forest in just two decades? Two hundred years ago, Ascension Isle was a barren volcanic wasteland. Today, hardly anyone would recognize it.
One of Charles Darwin’s greatest experiments and best kept secrets took place right here on shores and mountains of Ascension Isle. Old growth forests can take hundreds, if not thousands of years to establish themselves. Yet Darwin was able to partially transform this island into a lush tropical paradise within his own lifetime.
Remote doesn’t even begin to describe the island. Ascension is smack in the middle of the Atlantic, a thousand miles of the coast of Africa, and another thousand from the warm coasts of South America. The British Royal Navy had a strategic interest in this tiny dot of land for a couple of reasons. It allowed them to keep an eye on St Helena, from where the exiled emperor Napoleon would eventually escape, but it also served as a valuable waypoint, being almost perfectly in the middle of the Atlantic.
The biggest problem the Royal Navy had with Ascension was the lack of fresh water. The island was devastated by rats, goats brought by ship, and other vermin, and was constantly buffeted by the dry winds sweeping across south Africa. The island was so barren that no water would collect on its surface.
Darwin’s colleague Joseph Hooker, happened to have a connection at Kew Gardens in Britain. Darwin conjured the idea of shipping trees and planting them, little by little, with each trip the Royal Navy made to the island. Leaving the Kew Gardens supply in the hands of Hooker, Darwin set sail on a four year voyage around the globe, soliciting botanical gardens all across Europe, South Africa and Argentina. A random assortment of plants from all over the world were brought to the island. Many types had never been mixed before, and absolutely none that were native to the Island.
After just twenty years, a massive forest of Norfolk Pine, Bamboo, Banana Trees, and Eucalyptus had sprung up mountain peaks. The results were absolutely earth-shattering. The climate of the island was changed overnight, thick clouds would collect at this highest points. Moisture was attracted and collected by the trees, creating dark ‘cloud forest’ on the higher elevations across Ascension. Streams began to form as moisture began to collect on the westward side of the island. The experiment was a monumental success.
Dr Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist from Liverpool, was completely dumbfounded when he encountered Ascension eight years ago.
“I remember thinking, this is really weird,” he recalled the day he first set foot on Ascension isle “There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin and everything that had happened,” he said. What would usually take millions of years to evolve through a slow process of co-evolution. The tropics of Ascension Isle had almost sprung up overnight.
Dr Wilkinson states today that the world really doesn’t know what it has with Ascension. Habitat regrowth will become one of the most important issues in the future, as resources are consumed, and habitats destroyed. The implications towards populating other worlds are also extremely intriguing. “That is what is really exciting” said Dr Wilkinson, “What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error.”
The strategic military value of Ascension’s location explains why this ecosystem unlike any other in the world has not been studied more. There are few residents on the isle, and access is strictly controlled by the British and American military. Dr Wilkinson laments that Darwin’s success has not caught the eye of scientists around the world, simply because not many have heard of it, or are allowed access to it.
“It’s a terrible waste that no-one is studying it” says Dr Wilkinson. Therefore, the greatest Terra-Forming experiment the world has ever known remains largely a mystery, as remote as Ascension Island itself.