Ascension Island is a tiny volcanic rock south of the equator in the middle of the South Atlantic. Located almost midway between Brazil and Africa, it may provide the key to changing the hostile environments we will encounter when we venture to other worlds. It may also be the key to restoring the Earth.
Ascension is an island of only 34 square miles (88 square kilometers). The British Overseas Territory was essentially a barren rock pile when Charles Darwin visited there at the end of his second voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836.
The Spanish explorer, Joao da Nova, discovered Ascension Island in 1501. It attracted no interest due to its dry climate and little freshwater. Passing ships continued to stop so sailors could catch seabirds and turtles for a change-of-diet, but no permanent habitation.
Settlement of Ascension did not arrive until the British Navy placed a garrison in 1815 as insurance against Napoleon, exiled on Saint Helena some 800 miles to the southeast, attempting to escape. It became an imperial outpost and a rest stop for scientific explorers like Darwin and his friend botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Darwin was on his way home after his five-year exploration mission on the HMS Beagle when it stopped at Ascension Island in 1836. He had visited Saint Helena first and came to Ascension out of curiosity and a desire to compare the two islands. He found little on Ascension about which to be excited. It was an arid island buffeted by dry trade winds from Southern Africa with sparse vegetation and few animals or insects. There were no trees and the little rain that fell quickly evaporated. The Scarcity of freshwater impeded the growth or expansion of the imperial outpost.
Despite its shortcomings, Darwin was intrigued by this island. A few years later when Joseph Hooker embarked upon his scientific adventure and stopped at this barren island outpost on his way home. After returning to London in 1843 and with encouragement from Darwin, Hooker, the botanist, devised a plan to alter its environment.
Hooker’s father was the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Hooker, assisted by his father, arranged for trees to be shipped to Ascension to use them to capture the rain. They hoped that using trees to capture moisture from the rain would help make the soil fertile and change the barren island into a lush garden. It was hope without any evidence or example suggesting the plan might work.
Over the years that followed, new shipments of trees of many varieties were shipped annually from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa, and Argentina. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the island was home to Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, bamboo, and banana trees. The 2,817 foot Green Mountain, highest on the island, was transformed into a cloud forest characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover.
The trees drew moisture from the clouds, enriching the soil and allowing other vegetation to thrive as hoped. Darwin and Hooker assisted by the Royal Navy turned the barren island landscape into a lush oasis. The success of this experiment was far beyond their expectations.
What Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy created was the first self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem. What might we learn from this first attempt in terraforming? The environment they created is artificial. It has a mixture of plants and trees that do not belong together in nature, but they are growing side-by-side. Such ecosystems as this should take over a million years to develop through a slow process of co-evolution. This ecosystem was built over a few decades by the Royal Navy. The lessons learned here are of immense future importance. It tells us we can create a fully functioning ecosystem through careful planning, trial-and-error, and aided by a few chance accidents.
The process is now known as ecological fitting. The plants on Ascension were collected from locations around-the-world and have self-organized into a thriving artificial system. The success Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy accomplished on Ascension Island remains relatively unknown and largely ignored by the scientific community. Its implications have immense potential importance both in our need to restore the Earth and in the future when we try to reshape environments on other worlds.
Combatting climate change and mitigating global warming, we must change our thinking and behavior. Rather than taking from it by drilling, extracting, stripping, and pumping resources from the Earth, we must invest in restoring the environment and ecosystems to protect its health and welfare. Creating artificial ecosystems by planting large-scale planned forests may not be our first choice, but it may become the only choice. The knowledge and expertise we acquire have implications and impact on what we do later elsewhere on the Earth and in outer space. We may learn how to turn deserts and other barren areas we have created by our rush to extract, drill, and pump Earth’s bounty to support our greed and lust green again.
Green mountain shows us much about how ecosystems form and function in ways we never imagined. It may help us understand how an ecosystem can be constructed and used for carbon sequestration to combat global warming and climate change. Planned forests may be lacking in diversity and the regional peculiarities we find in nature, but they are a small price to pay given what we have lost in our currently warming world.
History and experience suggest humans do not want to face hard realities. We try our best to avoid difficult choices and making painful decisions, even when our very survival is at risk. We seem unable to defer on pleasure even knowing continuing a behavior leads to death. Consequently, acknowledging we must learn to live within the sustainable limits of the Earth’s capacity to regenerate is a requirement and not a choice for becoming a spacefaring species.
Why? Because wherever we go into the cosmos, we take Earth with us. But before we go elsewhere, we have to have a healthy Earth to draw from and return. We have to recreate Earth wherever we go. Any life we find elsewhere will undoubtedly be toxic to us. Bringing the Earth with us wherever we go is not a choice. It is a necessity.
Global warming and climate change make studying what happened on Ascension Island imperative to help us restore the Earth. Here lies a gift for us, hidden on a small forgotten island in the middle of nowhere. We only need to see and take advantage of what we have inherited. It may provide how we may soon need to save ourselves.
As always, Wabi-sabi