Birth of a new research project… Ascension Island


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Ascension Island, southern approach. Image courtesy of the Guardian newspaper

It always surprises me the unpredictable mix of chance, curiosity and vision which can result in the birth of a new research project. Several conversations over the past few months with the British Ambassador to Bolivia, colleagues at Kew and at the Natural History Museum are hinting that a new research project focussed on a small forest on the UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island could be forming. It would be a project with strong links to the history of Kew Gardens, the Royal Navy and of two of the most famous UK scientists of the 19thC, Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker and their idea of using forest to capture moisture from clouds to provide  an isolated and important staging post in the middle of the South Atlantic with freshwater. Darwin and Hooker, each famous in his own right had visited the isolated volcanic island of Ascension in the South Atlantic during the first half of the 19thC. Both were struck by the barren nature of the island’s central peak and lack of water. For unlike many island peaks Ascension island had no forest to trap and extract moisture from passing clouds and so the Royal Navy Garrison stationed there suffered from water shortages. Darwin and Hooker set upon the idea of planting a ‘fantasy’ cloud forest using the most appropriate species from around the World  supplied from the Tropical Nurseries of Kew Gardens and the South African Botanical Garden in what was also a great experiment in reforestation and forest species assembly.

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The cloud forest, 160 years after it was planted on a design by two of Britain’s most famous scientists: Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker

Today the peak of Ascension Island is covered in a mature cloud forest which traps significant amounts of water from the passing clouds. It is also rich in species not deliberately introduced: mosses, lichens and insects and has developed a humic soil. Hooker kept detailed records of the species sent and that these are retained in the Kew Archives. It seems that the ground has been set for a fascinating research project focussed on understanding how this forest assembled itself over the past 160 years, which additional species it has attracted, from where; and how the soils and their complex ecosystems formed. Which, given the challenges being faced by the mining and extractive industries today  in rehabilitating damaged landscapes could provide some timely insights.

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