is a British island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Its
area is 34 square miles (88 square km), and it is a
dependency of the colony of St. Helena, 700 miles (1,100 km)
to the southeast. Except on the heights of Green Mountain
(2,817 feet [859 m]), where fruit, vegetables, and livestock
are raised, the island is mostly a desolate desert of
extinct volcanic craters and extensive and permeable lava
fields, which exclude surface streams. Nineteenth-century catchment basins on Green Mountain
yield some fresh water, but the bulk of the supply is produced in
desalinisation plants. Unprotected by coral reefs, the sandy
beaches are vulnerable to heavy oceanic swells but are critical
nesting sites for the globally endangered green sea turtles, which
come ashore to lay eggs between January and April. Sooty terns also
breed in abundance, but other birds have suffered major depredations
by feral cats.
navigator João da Nova Castella discovered the island in 1501 (on
Ascension Day), but it remained uninhabited until 1815, when British
marines were stationed there to discourage Napoleon's escape from St.
Helena. An "administrator," under the governor of St. Helena, has
represented the British crown since 1922, but the economy depends on
communications facilities operated by Cable and Wireless PLC, the
British Broadcasting Corporation, the U.S. National Aeronautics and
Space Administration, the U.S. Air Force, the Royal Air Force, and
British and American intelligence organizations. About half the
population are St. Helenian contract labourers, about 200 are Americans,
and the remainder are metropolitan British. There are no permanent
residents on the island.
was built by American engineers during World War II.
It was critical to British success during the Falkland Islands
war of 1982, when a big tent camp of British
marines and soldiers sprang up overnight.
Ascension is a refulling point for Royal Air
Force flights between the United Kingdom and the Falklands.
U.S. flights travel from Patrick Air Force Base, Florida,
via the Caribbean island of Antigua. Access
to Ascension is limited, although private yachts may remain for three
days, at the discretion of the administrator.