Tag Archives: Ascension Island

Chuck Darwin, steampunk terraformer to Her Majesty Queen Victoria

Everyone’s been linking this one (though I saw it first at Chez Ken MacLeod), but it’s too good a story not to mention: the rich ecosystem of Ascension Island is not natural, but the result of a collaboration between Charles Darwin, the Botanical Gardens of Kew and the Royal Navy.

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens – where Hooker’s father was director – shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. 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 had all run riot.

And here’s your science fictional end-of-story conceptual slingshot bit:

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 the principles that emerge from that experiment could be used to transform future colonies on Mars. In other words, 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”.

Watch closely for Mars-themed short stories over the next twelve months; I’ve got five bucks here that says a lot of them will feature a capital city or main base called Darwin. 🙂