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Darwin's "Secret Cloud Forest": A Model of How Human Exploration Could Colonize Space

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04/11/2011 01:09 PM
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Darwin's "Secret Cloud Forest": A Model of How Human Exploration Could Colonize Space
Two hundred years ago, Ascension Island, one of a number of volcanic islands in the middle of the South Atlantic, located 1,600km (1,000 miles) from the coast of Africa and 2,250km (1,400 miles) from South America was a barren volcanic edifice on the mid-Atlantic ridge, a chain of underwater volcanoes formed as the ocean is wrenched apart. Fast forward to today: its sharp jagged peaks are covered by lush tropical "cloud forest" -- a great little-known imperial experiment that may hold the key to the future colonisation of Mars and beyond.

What happened in the interim, reports the BBC, is the amazing story of how Charles Darwin, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.

Dr. Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University, who has written extensively about Ascension Island's strange ecosystem, first visited the island in 2003.
Darwin's artificial forest captures moisture from clouds that drift over Ascension's peaks.
An ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University, who has written extensively about Ascension Island's strange ecosystem, describes the vegetation of "Green Mountain" -- as the highest peak is now known -- as a "cloud forest". The trees capture sea mist, creating a damp oasis amid the aridity.

However, this is a forest with a difference. It is totally artificial. Ecosystems like Ascension's Cloud Forest normally develop over million of years through a slow process of co-evolution. By contrast, the Green Mountain cloud forest was cobbled together by the Royal Navy in a matter of decades.

In 1836 the young Charles Darwin was coming to the end of his five-year mission on the HMS Beagle to explore strange new worlds and that led to his theory of evolution and natural selection that continues to ransform the moden world.

Ascension was a strategic base for the Royal Navy. Originally set up to keep a watchful eye on the exiled emperor Napoleon on nearby St Helena, it was a thriving waystation at the time of Hooker's visit. A big problem that impeded further expansion of this imperial outpost was the supply of fresh water. Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and the botanist Joseph Hooker's visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.Prodded by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker, his great friend and intrepid explorer, advised the Royal Navy to set in motion a radical scheme. Only a few years after Darwin's return, Hooker was off on his own adventures, exploring Antarctica aboard HMS Erebus and Terror. Mirroring Darwin's voyage, Hooker called in on Ascension on the way home in 1843. With the help of Kew Gardens, where Hooker's father was director, shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension. The concept was simplicity in action. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The "cinder" would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina. Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana were thriving.

"I remember thinking, this is really weird," Dr Wilkinson told the BBC. "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," he said. "What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error."

In effect, what Darwin, Hooker and the Royal Navy achieved was the world's first experiment in "terra-forming". They created a self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem in order to make Ascension Island more habitable.

Wilkinson thinks that Darwin's experiment could be a model that can be used to transform future colonies on Mars. In other words, he told the BBC, rather than trying to improve an environment by force, the best approach might be to work with life to help it "find its own way".Casey Kazan via BBCNews
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