The island is named after the day of its recorded discovery, Ascension Day. It played a role as an important safe haven and coaling station to mariners and for commercial airliners during the days of international air travel by flying boats. During World War II it was an important naval and air station, especially providing antisubmarine warfare bases in the Battle of the Atlantic. Ascension Island was garrisoned by the British Admiralty from 22 October 1815 to 1922.
The island is the location of RAF Ascension Island, which is a Royal Air Force station, a European Space Agency rocket tracking station, an Anglo-American signals intelligence facility and the BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station. The island was used extensively as a staging point by the British military during the Falklands War. Ascension Island hosts one of four ground antennas that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System navigational system. NASA operates a Meter Class Autonomous Telescope on Ascension Island for tracking orbital debris, which is potentially hazardous to operating spacecraft and astronauts, at a facility called the John Africano NASA/AFRL Orbital Debris Observatory.
In 1501, the Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque sighted the island on Ascension Day (which fell on 21 May that year) and named it Ilha da Ascensão after this feast day. Dry and barren, the island had little appeal for passing ships except for collecting fresh meat, and was not claimed for the Portuguese Crown. Mariners could hunt for the numerous seabirds and the enormous female green turtles that laid their eggs on the sandy beaches. The Portuguese also introduced goats as a potential source of meat for future mariners.
In February 1701, HMS Roebuck, commanded by William Dampier, sank in the common anchoring spot in Clarence Bay to the northwest of the island. Sixty men survived for two months until they were rescued. Almost certainly, after a few days they found the strong water spring in the high interior of the island, in what is now called Breakneck Valley (there is a much smaller water source, lower on the mountain, which was named Dampier's Drip by people who probably misinterpreted Dampier's story).
It is possible that the island was sometimes used as an open prison for criminal mariners, although there is only one documented case of such an exile, a Dutch ship's officer, Leendert Hasenbosch, set ashore at Clarence Bay as a punishment for sodomy in May 1725. British mariners found the Dutchman's tent, belongings and diary in January 1726; the man's remains were not found. His diary was published in translation in London later that same year, under the title Sodomy Punish'd; it can nowadays be read online.
Organised settlement of Ascension Island began in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I on Saint Helena to the southeast. On 22 October the Cruizer class brig-sloops Zenobia and Peruvian claimed the island for His Britannic Majesty King George III. The Royal Navy designated the island as a stone frigate, HMS Ascension, with the classification of "Sloop of War of the smaller class".
The location of the island made it a useful stopping-point for ships and communications. The Royal Navy used the island as a victualling station for ships, particularly those of the West Africa Squadron working against the slave trade. A garrison of Royal Marines was based at Ascension from 1823.
In 1836 the Beagle voyage visited Ascension. Charles Darwin described it as an arid treeless island, with nothing growing near the coast. Sparse vegetation inland supported "about six hundred sheep, many goats, a few cows & horses", large numbers of guineafowl imported from the Cape Verde islands, rats, mice, and land crabs; he agreed with the saying attributed to the people of St Helena that "We know we live on a rock, but the poor people at Ascension live on a cinder". He noted the care taken to sustain "houses, gardens & fields placed near the summit of the central mountain", and cisterns at roadsides to provide drinking water. The springs were carefully managed, "so that a single drop of water may not be lost: indeed the whole island may be compared to a huge ship kept in first-rate order." In commenting on this, he noted René Primevère Lesson's remark "that the English nation alone would have thought of making the island of Ascension a productive spot; any other people would have held it as a mere fortress in the ocean."
In 1843, botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker visited the island. Four years later, Hooker, with much encouragement from Darwin, advised the Royal Navy that with the help of Kew Gardens, they should institute a long-term plan of shipping trees to Ascension. The planted trees would capture more rain and improve the soil, allowing the barren island to become a garden. So, from 1850 and continuing year on year, ships came with an assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Argentina, Europe and South Africa. By the late 1870s Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, bamboo, and banana trees grew in profusion at the highest point of the island, Green Mountain, creating a tropical cloud forest.
In 1899, the Eastern Telegraph Company installed the first underwater cable from the island, connecting the UK with its colonies in South Africa. In 1922, letters patent made Ascension a dependency of Saint Helena. The island was managed by the head of the Eastern Telegraph Company on the island until 1964 when the British Government appointed an Administrator to represent the Governor of Saint Helena on Ascension.
During World War II, to supply and augment extensive amphibious aircraft antisubmarine patrol operations ongoing from the early days of the war, the United States built an airbase on Ascension Island, known as "Wideawake", after a nearby colony of sooty terns (locally called 'wideawake' birds because of their loud, distinctive constant (day-and-night) cawing chatter. The airbase, which was under construction by the 38th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Army Corps of Engineers, was unexpectedly visited by two British Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes on 15 June 1942. According to one of the pilots, Peter Jinks, the planes were fired upon before being recognised as allies. The Swordfish had to land on the unfinished airstrip, thus becoming the first aircraft to land on Ascension Island proper — which had long served as an ASW base for Catalina (PBY Catalina) flying boats. The event was commemorated with a postage stamp 15 June 1982.
The airfield was used by the US military as a stopping point for American aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the way to theatres of operation in Europe and Africa. American bombers based at Wideawake were engaged in the Laconia incident. After the end of World War II, and American departure, the airbase fell into disuse.
The only local military action during World War II occurred on 9 December 1941. At around mid-day, the German submarine U-124 approached Georgetown on the surface with the intention of sinking any ships at anchor or shelling the cable station. Fort Bedford, a two-gun shore battery at Cross Hill, above Georgetown, fired on the submarine. The guns scored no hits but the U-boat submerged and retreated. The battery remains largely intact to this day, together with its guns, BL 5.5 inch Mark I naval guns removed from HMS Hood during a refit in Malta in 1938.
With the Space Race and the Cold War, the Americans returned in 1956. Wideawake Airfield expanded in the mid-1960s. The runway, with its strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow its use by large aircraft, and later to act as an emergency runway for the Space Shuttle, although the Shuttle never had to use it. At the time, it was the world's longest airport runway. The United States Air Force used the island as part of its Eastern Range. NASA established a tracking station on the island in 1967, which it operated for more than 20 years before closing it down in 1990. A joint Government Communications Headquarters and National Security Agency signals intercept station was also established on Ascension during the Cold War. The island retains a role in space exploration: the European Space Agency now operates an Ariane monitoring facility there. The BBC Atlantic Relay Station was installed in 1966 for short-wave broadcasts to Africa and South America.
In 1982 the British task force used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falklands War. The Royal Air Force deployed a fleet of Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers at the airfield. Vulcans launched the opening shots of the British offensive from Ascension in Operation Black Buck. The RAF also used the base to supply the task force. Because of the increase in air traffic during the war, Wideawake, with up to 400 movements of all types each day, was one of the busiest airfields in the world for a short period. The Royal Navy's fleet stopped at Ascension for refuelling on the way. Following the war, the British retained an increased presence on the island, establishing RAF Ascension Island, and providing a refuelling stop for the regular airlink between RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, and RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands.
As of 2004, it was reported that the Composite Signals Organisation, an arm of GCHQ, continued to operate a signals interception facility at Cat Hill on Ascension. As of 2007 NASA continued to list Ascension Island as a "downrange site" used for range safety instrumentation. In particular, the Post-Detect Telemetry System used to acquire launch vehicle telemetry includes a station on Ascension.
In 2008 British diplomats at the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), requested sovereignty over 77,220 square miles (200,000 km2) of submarine territory around the island. This would enable exploration into new reserves of oil, gas and minerals, though none are thought to exist.
In 2016, the United States Department of Energy started operating a mobile climate research facility on the island. It is operated by the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility (ARM) near the South East Crater, south of the Green Mountain summit. The field campaign requires the mobile facility to be operational for about 17 months, until October 2017.
The main island has an area of approximately 88 km². A volcanic peak rising from only 100 km (62 mi) west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, much of the island is a wasteland of lava flows and cinder cones; no fewer than forty-four distinct dormant craters have been identified.
Ascension is a geologically young formation, the tip of an undersea volcano which rose above the waves only a million years ago. It is associated both with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge plate boundary 80 km to the west and with a hotspot 25–300 km to the south east. Its last eruption may have occurred in the sixteenth century. Due to its short above-water history, its soil consists mostly of clinker.
Ascension has a hot desert climate (BWh, according to the Köppen climate classification). The temperatures at the coast average from 22.7 to 27.8 °C (72.9 to 82.0 °F), and about 5 to 6 °C (9 to 11 °F) cooler at the highest point. Rain showers may occur at any time during the year, but tend to be heavier between June and September. Although the Island is located in the tropical zone, average annual rainfall is very low. The cause of this might be the relatively low temperature of the ocean water, as the Benguela Current and South Equatorial Current flow northward west of Africa. These currents bring cooling effects around the eastern South Atlantic Ocean. Tropical cyclones also occur only rarely in the South Atlantic Ocean which might be caused by the same phenomenon, and by strong vertical wind shear.
The endemic flora includes plants like Pteris adscensionis, Asplenium ascensionis, Euphorbia origanoides as well as the extinct species Oldenlandia adscensionis, Sporobolus durus and Dryopteris ascensionis. Anogramma ascensionis (Ascension Island parsley fern) was thought to have become extinct due to habitat loss, until four plants were found on the island in 2010. Over 60 specimens were then successfully cultivated. Portuguese explorers released goats in the 1500s which ate many species to extinction. The later introduction of rabbits, sheep, rats and donkeys, and over 200 imported species further marginalised the original flora.
By 1843 the island was barren with few plants. However, due to the introduction of species by the British, Ascension Island's Green Mountain is now one of the few large-scale planned forests, and is gradually growing with each year. Its highest point is at 859 m. Non-indigenous plants teem there, and the crown of Green Mountain is a lush halo of bamboo. Flanking one side is a large stand of tall Norfolk pine, trees planted by British mariners, which were to have been used as replacement masts for sailing ships. In June 2005 the first National Park on Ascension Island, the Green Mountain National Park, was opened.
Prosopis juliflora, a type of mesquite known as Mexican thorn, was introduced by BBC engineers to bind the dry top soil when they arrived in 1966 to construct a shortwave relay station. It has thrived on the barren lava of the island - an estimated 38,000 bushes existed by 2016. Its spread has been destructive to other species, and current encroachment on the edges of beaches threatens those that use this space, such as the green turtle. Its hardy taproots can extend to 30 meters deep. Local authorities are considering means of controlling or eradicating it.
A variety of mammals have been introduced: donkeys, sheep, cats and rats among others. Reptiles consist of two species of lizards. Endemic insect species include the minute, wingless Psocopteran Troglotroctes ashmolearum, that has been found in caves and between lava blocks. In summer, flies are known to be a problem.
The largest native land animal is the land crab Johngarthia lagostoma (formerly Gecarcinus lagostoma). Offshore, there is a variety of open-ocean fish, including sharks, wahoo, tuna, bonito, barracuda, marlin, blackfish and sailfish. The protected green turtle is perhaps the most notable of the endemic fauna, coming ashore to lay their eggs on the beaches from November to May. Turtles were regularly harvested until 1930, when the practice was banned. By 1970 the turtle population had begun to rebound. From the 1970s, when records began, to 2014, green turtle nesting increased by 500 percent, resulting in some 24,000 nests being laid on the Island's main beaches each year.
On land are found such non-native birds such as canaries, francolins, mynas, sparrows, and waxbills. Sooty terns or "wideawake birds" nest in great seashore lava "fairs". Other seabirds include some types of boobies, petrels and tropicbirds (named boatswain (pronounced BO-sun) birds by the inhabitants of the island), white tern, brown noddy, black noddy and Ascension frigatebird. The Ascension crake became extinct around the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Off the east coast of Ascension is the islet of Boatswain Bird Island. It is a haven for sea birds providing refuge from the rats, cats and people that came to Ascension Island from Europe and Africa. Following a successful campaign headed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the main island was in 2006 declared free of feral cats, and sea birds are now once again nesting on Ascension Island.
Ascension Island, including fourteen inshore stacks and marine habitat extending out for three nautical miles from the coastline, has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International as a breeding site for seabirds. Birds for which the IBA is significant include red-billed tropicbirds, Ascension frigatebirds (an endemic breeder), sooty terns and black noddies. The island was formerly home to the endemic Ascension crake, but the species has been extinct since the early nineteenth century.
In January 2016 the UK Government announced that an area around Ascension Island was to become a huge marine reserve, to protect its varied and unique ecosystem, including some of the largest marlin in the world, large populations of green turtle, and the island's own species of frigate bird. With an area of 234,291 square kilometres (90,460 sq mi), slightly more than half of the reserve will be closed to fishing while the remainder will be policed thanks to a grant from the Louis Bacon Foundation. The reserve should be ready for formal designation by 2017.
Ascension forms part of a British overseas territory together with Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha. Executive authority is vested in Elizabeth II, who is represented by the Governor of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. As the Governor resides in Jamestown, Saint Helena, an Administrator is appointed to represent the Governor on Ascension Island.
As a result of changes in the constitutional arrangements for Ascension Island, the first Island Council of seven members was elected, and took office on 1 November 2002. This Council was dissolved by order of the Governor of Saint Helena on 24 October 2005, and a new election was held on 16 November 2005. 697 electors chose among ten candidates contesting the seven seats.
Six of the seven members resigned in January 2007 in the belief that they were "assisting to legitimise a democracy that doesn't really exist on Ascension Island". The preceding quote and its citation does not exist, at least not at October 2017, but the following citation of the councillors suggests the issue was over taxation/representation & it was 5 of 6 who resigned, and that it was not a boycott. The counter-argument being in essence that as the island has no indigenous population whatsoever, therefore it is an unusual political position. Consequently, a general election was called, but by the close of nominations, there were only two candidates. The election was abandoned, and the governor suspended the Island Council for 12 months. It was stated that an election would take place in April 2008 but following consultations this was extended to October. With eight nominations the elections were duly held and seven candidates were elected to form a new Island Council, which was sworn in on 28 October 2008.
Ascension Island has its own local system of law, much of which is based on the laws of Saint Helena and some parts of English law with modifications. The Island Council advises on new or revised laws. Where local legislation does not exist, Saint Helena law may be used where appropriate and suitable for local adaptation, or specific Ascension Island law is enacted. Employment legislation is a mixture of contract law and the Workmen's Protection Ordinance, which guarantees a contract, and obliges employers to provide free accommodation, medical cover, food (or a food allowance), and travel.
The Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009 was made by HM the Queen and the Privy Council on 8 July and came into operation in September 2009. The new constitution replaced the 1988 version and among other changes limited the Governor's powers, included a Bill of Rights, established independence of the judiciary and the public service, and designated the Governor of St Helena as, concurrently, the Governor for Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. It ended the "dependency" status of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha on Saint Helena that had been in place, for administrative convenience, since 1922.
In the February 2016 census, 806 people were recorded living on Ascension Island, 556 from Saint Helena (nicknamed the "Saints") and 250 people of other nationalities. RAF Ascension Island is made up of 17 staff. There has never been an indigenous population on the island.
There are five settlements:
Additionally, there are some cottages on Green Mountain, occasionally occupied by visitors, and the Residency, the official residence of the Administrator.
To enter Ascension Island, individuals need the Administrator's written permission. There is no permanent residence. A contract of employment is a requirement to stay on the island, though short term visits by tourists are possible with prior approval. The British government has asserted that there is no "right of abode" on Ascension Island. As the local newspaper The Islander reported at the time, it is an issue that was disputed by some former Council members and some of the long-time expatriate employees.
There are Scouting and Guiding groups on Saint Helena and Ascension Island. Scouting was established on Ascension Island in November 1973, having been established on St Helena island in 1912.
Two Boats School is the only school on the island and provides education to all resident children aged 3–16.
The main economic activity on the island is centred on the military bases at Wideawake Airfield, and the BBC World Service's Atlantic Relay station. The Ministry of Defence estate and facilities are managed by the infrastructure support provider Interserve Defence. Serco runs the airport services and Sodexo provides catering and domestic facilities. A former feature of Ascension was a 70,000 tonne tanker permanently moored offshore that was operated by Maersk as a bulk fuel facility. In December 2002, this was replaced by an on-shore Petroleum Supply Depot under military management, with fuel still being delivered by a chartered tanker, the Maersk Rapier, which operates on an MOD resupply contract for both Ascension and the Falkland Islands every two months. Fuel for the island is transferred via a floating hose, which is connected to the on-shore depot at the island's pier head and to the ship at anchor.
The main export items are Ascension Island postage stamps, first issued in 1922, and, since 2010, commemorative coins (which are legal tender but non-circulating) and commercial fishing licences for long-line tuna fishing vessels operating to ICCAT quotas.
A secondary export is the international internet domain code.ac, which small UK educational colleges and science museums are favouring due to its similarity to.ac.uk, the domain code reserved for well-established UK educational institutions. In December 2013, Pirate Bay (one of the most well-known file piracy websites in the world) moved to.ac following the seizure of their.sx website.
Until 2002, tourism was virtually non-existent because of the inaccessibility of the island to transport, the absence of guest accommodation and the need for a sponsor. Limited air travel has, however, been made available in recent years to the public by the RAF, and the Georgetown Obsidian Hotel and a number of guest cottages have been opened. All visitors are required to obtain an entry permit before travelling. Sport fishing is the main attraction for many of the visitors. The island also boasts what is sometimes called the worst golf course in the world.
The island hosts many communications and relay stations, exploiting its mid-Atlantic position. Both the BBC and Cable & Wireless Worldwide (owned by Vodafone since 2012) have communications posts there. The European Space Agency (ESA) also has a tracking station on the island that tracks the Ariane 5 and the Soyuz rockets shortly after their launch from Kourou in French Guiana.
Ascension has one local radio station and one relayed from St. Helena. It also receives broadcasts from the British Forces Broadcasting Service and television services for the US military.
Ascension Island has the international calling code +247 and, from 1 June 2015 has 5 digit numbers (the old 4-digit number prefixed by the digit “6”).
The island provided a base for a NASA communications dish during the space race in the mid-twentieth century. The island was chosen due to its central location in the Atlantic. Sites were chosen due to their proximity to orbital paths – generally along the Equator.
The Bank of St. Helena has a branch on the island; it holds an account with the UK's Lloyds Bank for the purposes of conducting money transfers with the rest of the world. The currency on Ascension Island is the Saint Helena pound. Tristan da Cunha however uses the pound sterling rather than the Saint Helena pound. The coins of the Saint Helena pound specify that they are for use on both Saint Helena and Ascension Island, but with no mention of Tristan da Cunha. For more information on currency in the wider region, see Pound sterling in the South Atlantic and the Antarctic.
In 2003 the British and US governments signed the Wideawake agreement designed to allow a limited number of non-scheduled civilian aircraft to land on Ascension Island, under responsibility of the British government.
Poor runway conditions at RAF Ascension Island led in April 2017 to the cancellation of twice-weekly flights from there to the UK (RAF Brize Norton) and to the Falkland Islands (RAF Mount Pleasant).
An Airbus A330 aircraft operated by AirTanker Services on behalf of the Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom) carried out those flights, called the South Atlantic Air Bridge, although a limited number of commercial passenger tickets were available. Those flights now travel via Cape Verde.
The RMS St. Helena ship is for now the only available option for civilians to travel to and from the island. The vessel calls approximately once a month and links the island with St Helena and Cape Town.
While A330s are for now unable to land at the airport, the United States military continues to maintain a weekly flight between the island and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida for the use of its personnel only, while the (MV Ascension) supply ship regularly services US facilities.
A C17 for the UK's MoD lands there at Ascension once a month for its own personnel.
There is no taxi service on the island and most visitors requiring transport hire a car. There are around 40 kilometres (25 mi) of roads on the island, all hard-surfaced. Some of the surfacing used surplus tarmac from construction of the airstrip. Traffic drives on the left.