Darwins secret experiment may help us terra-form Mars

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PostFri Sep 03, 2010 9:43 pm » by -Marduk-


Darwin’s secret experiment may help us terra-form Mars


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A lonely island in the middle of the South Atlantic conceals Charles Darwin’s best-kept secret. Two hundred years ago, Ascension Island was a barren volcanic edifice. Today, its peaks are covered by lush tropical “cloud forest”. What happened in the interim is the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem. By a bizarre twist, this great imperial experiment may hold the key to the future colonisation of Mars. The tiny tropical island of Ascension is not easy to find. It is incredibly remote, located 1,600km (1,000 miles) from the coast of Africa and 2,250km (1,400 miles) from South America.

Its existence depends entirely on what geologists call the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is a chain of underwater volcanoes formed as the ocean is wrenched apart. However, because Ascension occupies a “hot spot” on the ridge, its volcano is especially active. A million years ago, molten magma explosively burst above the waves. Back in 1836, the young Charles Darwin was coming to the end of his five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no naturalist had gone before. Aboard HMS Beagle, he called in at Ascension. En route from another remote volcanic island, St Helena, Darwin wasn’t expecting much. “We know we live on a rock, but the poor people of Ascension live on a cinder,” the residents of St Helena had joked before his departure. But arriving on Ascension put an unexpected spring in Darwin’s step.

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Ascension is one of a number of volcanic islands in the South Atlantic

Professor David Catling of the University of Washington, Seattle, is retracing Darwin’s travels for a new book. He told the BBC: “Awaiting Darwin on Ascension was a letter from his Cambridge mentor, John Henslow. “Darwin’s voyage of discovery had already caused a huge sensation in London,” he explained. “Henslow assured him that on his return, he would take his place among the great men of science.” At this fantastic news, Darwin bounded forth in ecstasy, the sound of his geological hammer ringing from hill to hill.

Everywhere, bright red volcanic cones and rugged black lava signalled the violent forces that had wrought the island. Yet, thinks Professor Catling, amid this wild desolation, Darwin began to hatch a plot. Out of the ashes of the volcano, he would create a green oasis – a “Little England”.



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. Back in England, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution were busily uprooting the Garden of Eden. But on a green hill far away, a new “island Eden” was being created. …

Dr Wilkinson exclaimed: “This is really exciting!” “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 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”....


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-= PREDESTINATION: Itz hard to be ze good guy when you turn into a fucking gun =-

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