Sure everyone knows that Charles Darwin came up with the Theory of Evolution, but did you know that he was also one of the world’s first terraformers? That’s right, Darwin helped create one of the first self-sustaining ecosystems…and he did it on a barren island in the 1800’s.
Ascension Island is a tiny, volcanic speck stuck between South America and Africa and in the 1800’s, it was completely lifeless, with no trees and very little fresh water. (It was also a British military base intended to keep an eye on Napoleon, who was exiled on the nearby island of St. Helena.) Darwin visited the island during his historic voyage on the HMS Beagle, and several years afterwards, encouraged his friend, botanist Joseph Hooker, to develop a plan to forest Ascension with trees from England. And by England, we mean English gardens, which had trees from all over the world, including bamboo, Eucalyptus and Banana.
Today, Ascension Island is a lush oasis, as the hodgepodge of trees that never lived together before co-exist and suck moisture from the sea. It’s the first ever self-sustaining artificial ecosystem (Suck it, Biodome 2!), but few people have heard of it, including the scientists who should be learning from it.
BBC News recently interviewed Dr. Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool Johns Moores University, who has written extensively about the strange hodgepodge ecosystem that’s been created on the island and feels that it could tell us a lot about how a similar environment could be created artificially in space or on another planet.
“What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error.” He later added, “It’s a terrible waste that no-one is studying it,”