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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 affairDr 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.
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.
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