Barro Colorado Island
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Barro Colorado Island

December 18, 2005

Hidden behind clouds near the center of this image, Barro Colorado Island is a heavily forested patch of land rising up out of the waters of Gatun Lake, situated at the northern end of the Panama Canal.

The island is the focus of the JASON Project's Expedition XV ("Rainforests at the Crossroads"), in which students, teachers, and scientists will conduct a detailed examination of the rainforest ecosystem.

The island is home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; Barro Colorado Island has been managed since 1924 by the Smithsonian and is one of the premier sites in the world for study of tropical forests and the plants and animals that inhabit them.

Barro Colorado Island was not formed by natural events, such as volcanic activity or tectonic plate movement. Instead, human activities are responsible for the island's creation.

Back in the early 1900s, the area of Panama now known as Barro Colorado Island was a big hill, called West Hill, located in the Chagres River Valley. A lush green canopy of tropical rainforest covered much of the valley, but people also lived in the valley and converted some areas into farmland. In fact, some of the towns and villages in the valley were hundreds of years old.

In 1914, engineers who were working on the Panama Canal constructed a dam to block the Chagres River's outflow. The dam changed the way the river flowed and caused water to rise in the Chagres River Valley.

New lakes, like Gatun Lake, were created in the process and entire towns, forested areas, and farmlands were flooded. As the water rose, the lower portions of West Hill were also covered by water and the top part of the hill became an island—Barro Colorado Island.

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