The man bringing WA mine-scapes back to life
A Perth mine rehabilitation scientist has described the oddly God-like process of restoring billions of years’ worth of evolution in as little as five years.
Adam Cross, supervisor at Curtin University’s ARC Centre for Mining Restoration, has seen some extinctions happen firsthand – and physically prevented others.
When asked if his job was like playing God, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, that’s what a lot of miners have asked us to do,” he said.
As a restoration ecologist, Dr Cross steps into the picture as mines are nearing the end of their life to help companies restore the landscape to resemble the surroundings.
But most companies don’t plan closures early enough, meaning scientists like him need to rehabilitate completely destroyed landscapes in a matter of five to ten years.
WA’s natural soils had taken millions of years to weather to the point where current plant and animal species could survive, he said.
Mine exploitation, however, brought rock particles that had been in the bedrock millions of years to the surface, challenging the survival of species adapted to different ground.
“It’s almost as challenging a process in some aspects as trying to terraform the moon or Mars,” he said.
“The composition of that rock is locked in time as it was created; we are now digging down and bringing that rock back to the surface where it’s never experienced oxygen before, crushing it into tiny particles, putting it on the landscape and expecting stuff to grow in it.
“It would be basically like taking an oxygen-breathing animal and putting it into a nitrogen environment and expecting it to just be able to breathe.”
Dr Cross uses chronosequences, similar ecological sites that represent different stages in land formation, to study the aging process of the soil and apply it to mining areas with similar characteristics, effectively using nature to figure out how to accelerate nature.
But rehab scientists need to be creative.
“Every time a new mineral is created the waste product is completely different,” Dr Cross said.
“One site a hundred kilometres away from another site might have completely different rock that results in a completely different land form, but also has completely different plants and animals that have adapted to those.
“It’s like trying to reinvent the wheel.”
With upwards of 11,000 abandoned mine sites and about 200,000 abandoned mining “features” across WA it’s a David and Goliath struggle.
But Dr Cross is a passionate ecologist and an optimist by nature.
He said there was so much negativity in Australian biodiversity and conservation circles that every success story was important, because it might be replicated elsewhere.
He wanted to see mining companies held to account for the damage they caused, and licenses depending on companies’ ability to restore the landscape.
But he said resource companies were starting to shift their focus.
“We want to make sure that companies and regulators understand how complex it is but also how achievable it is if the research and development and investment is planned for and then actually undertaken,” he said.
A lifelong love affair
Dr Cross fell in love with nature at the age of six, during a family hiking trip to Dwellingup.
“I’d just sat down on a log looking at all the stuff around, the grubs and beetles, and I saw a plant that had flies stuck all over it,” he said.
He was completely entranced by the flies’ struggle to free themselves from the carnivorous plant, which was slowly eating them.
“My passion is restoration and that’s my focus from a research perspective, but what I do in my spare time is work on carnivorous plants because they are an iconic and incredible group of organisms,” he said.
Dr Cross is one of WA’s leading carnivorous plant experts, who recently discovered the largest Australian population of Aldrovanda vesiculosa, an aquatic venus flytrap, ever discovered and the first one found in the Kimberley in 20 years.
When he isn’t working on rehabilitation projects or teaching at Curtin University, he is leading carnivorous plant explorations in Borneo or studying WA’s native flora in his backyard lab.
Dr Cross was recently named a finalist for Woodside Early Career Scientist of the Year at the 2019 Premier’s Science Awards for his mining restoration work.
“It’s a fantastic feeling … but I think the most significant thing personally is that it’s really fantastic to see ecology getting recognised next to genetics, medicine and these other fields that are traditionally the fields that make up the volume of awards,” the 29-year-old said.
“As a society we are realising there’s this massive and increasing need to address landscape degradation from agriculture, mining or whatever it might be.”
The winners will be announced at a ceremony on August 13.
Originally published by WA Today.
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