Ascension Island, a Barren, Volcanic Island Turned Green by Sir Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin

The remote Ascension Island in the South Atlantic was a barren, volcanic island in the 1700s. But today, it boasts one of the world’s largest artificial forests. The forest was planned by Charles Darwin and botanist Joseph Hooker in order to make the island habitable.

Ascension Island is an isolated, volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred years ago, the island was a barren, volcanic land. It was first discovered by Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque. Being barren, the island did not appeal to any passing ships and was not claimed for the Portuguese Crown. 

Ascension Island
A detailed location map of Ascension Island. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Ascension Island lies midway between South America and Africa. It is a volcanic island that was completely barren before 1843. The island was first discovered by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1501 on Ascension Day—hence, the name! But being barren, the island was not attractive enough to interest passing ships. Even Albuquerque did not claim the island for the Portuguese Crown when he found it.

Georgetown, the capital of Ascension
Georgetown, the capital of Ascension. Image Credit: LordHarris via Wikipedia
Ascension Island
Ascension Island, 2011. Image Credit: LordHarris via Wikipedia

Settlement began on the island around 1815. The first to settle were British troops. Their motive was to keep watch on Napoleon I who was imprisoned on Saint Helena which was southeast of Ascension. The island was claimed under the name of His Britannic Majesty King George III. The Royal Navy set up camp on the island and made it a useful stopping-point for ships.

When Darwin visited the island, he suggested a new environment on Ascension. Action was taken by Sir Joseph Hooker, a Victorian-era botanist, who shipped plants from the Kew Gardens to the island. By 1870, 5,000 trees had been planted.

Ascension Island
Airforce facility at Ascension Island. Image Credit: JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD via Wikipedia

In 1836, Charles Darwin visited Ascension Island when he was voyaging the world on the HMS Beagle. He was surprised at how treeless the island was. His exact words were, “We know we live on a rock, but the poor people at Ascension live on a cinder.” Following Darwin’s visit, Sir Joseph Hooker, a Victorian-era botanist, visited the island in 1843. In 1847, Hooker, with encouragement from Darwin, embarked upon a mission to bring greenery to the island. He advised the Royal Navy to get ready for a long-term plan to make Ascensio green.

Ascension Island
View from atop Green Mountain, showing Ascension Island. Image Credit: LordHarris via Wikipedia

His theory was simple. Trees would capture more rain and improve the quality of the soil. This would, in turn, help more plants to grow eventually making the island a self-sustaining garden. Starting from 1850, every year plants from the botanical gardens in Europe, Argentina, and South Africa were brought by ships to the island. By the late 1870s, more than 5,000 plants including eucalyptus trees, Norfolk pines, banana trees, and bamboo trees covered the island. A tropical cloud forest ecosystem was created in just a matter of decades.

Hooker’s work paid off and the island was flourishing with flora and fauna. But the interesting part was that the trees growing side by side on the island do not exist together in nature. Such co-existence normally develops over millions of years through a slow process of co-evolution. On the other hand, this also meant that it is possible to create a fully functioning ecosystem artificially.

NASA-Astronautenbild der Insel Ascension in Atlantischen Ozean. Image Credit: NASA via Wikipedia
Lava fields on Ascension Island
Lava fields on Ascension Island. Image credit: Ben Tullis via Wikipedia

From being barren in 1843, today Ascension island boasts of having one of the largest artificial forests in the world. Plants endemic to the island include Pteris adscensionis, Euphorbia origanoides, and Asplenium ascensionis. Some species that were thought to be extinct also thrive on the island. One example is the Anogramma ascensionis, a parsley fern.  It was thought to be extinct until 2010 when four plants were found on the island. Currently, there are over 60 specimens of the plants on the island.

In the case of fauna, mammals, such as donkeys, sheep, cats, and rats, were introduced. Two species of reptiles (lizards) reside on the island. Insects endemic to the island includes Troglotroctes ashmolearum, a tiny wingless insect.  The protected green turtle is the most notable of the fauna endemic to the island. Varieties of fish are also found in the waters surrounding the island.

Dr. Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist at Liverpool’s John Moores University, has done extensive research on the island. He first visited the island in 2003. He said, “There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker, and everything that had happened.” According to him, it takes millions of years for such an ecosystem to develop. In the lives of flora and fauna, survival of the fittest defines their existence. For so many different species to co-operate with each other, a very slow process of co-evolution is required. But nothing of that sort took place on the island. Everything happened in just a matter of decades. In the words of 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.”

Now scientists are studying the 150-year-old effort on Ascension Island to learn more about Mars. They plan to come up with strategies to make Mars green. This might also be the key to our existence on Earth in the future.

Ascension Island
Ascension Island. Image Credit: JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD via Wikipedia

Scientists have turned more of their attention towards studying Ascension Island over the last few years. After all, a completely barren volcanic island has turned into a dense forest. With talks about a settlement on Mars gaining traction, this island might be the best clue of how to bring vegetation there. This island has proven that million years of coevolution is not necessary for complex ecosystems to sustain themselves. Also, instances of faster coevolution can be seen at other places as well. Dox Sax of Brown University co-authored a paper in 2008 that documented a similar coevolution on five remote islands. They found out that plant diversity had doubled due to accidental biological introductions, but none of the local plants and animals became extinct.

Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island
Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island. Image Credit: Vincent van Zeijst via Wikipedia

Ascension Island will not just help scientists learn about Mars. It can also provide some insights on adorning Mother Earth with more greenery to ensure a green future. Maybe scientists can get insights on turning deserts into forests or expanding the numbers of endangered plants. Whatever may come, Ascension Island provides us an opportunity to learn and incorporate the knowledge to help save our planet today. If we do nothing today, we will be rightly criticized by our future generations.
[source: 1,2,3]

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