When Charles Darwin came to Ascension Island—an insanely remote volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic—it was utterly barren and desolate, bedeviled by dry trade winds from southern Africa. So the legendary scientist embarked on one of his most remarkable, and least heralded experiments. With the help of botanist buddy Joseph Hooker and the Royal Navy, Darwin covered the island with trees, creating an entirely artificial ecosystem.
The trees captured more rainwater, reduced evaporation, and improved the soil. It worked, turning the island’s hills green, and its highest peak into a moisture-trapping “cloud forest.” Now, an ecologist tells the BBC that the island could be a blueprint for colonizing Mars. “What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error. It’s a terrible waste that no one is studying it.”