How Adriana Verges is capturing hearts and minds in Australia
‘Climate change is having a huge impact on marine environments all over the world. The greatest effects that we are documenting is a redistribution of life on Earth, which is happening much faster in the oceans than on land.’
Adriana Vergés, a marine ecologist in Australia, has first-hand experience of climate change through her conservation work on the Great Southern Reef and as an Associate Professor at University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia.
‘My research focuses on two main lines of work: understanding the impacts of climate change in marine ecosystems and rewilding our coastlines by restoring underwater kelp forests and seagrass meadows that used to thrive but have been destroyed due to various human activities.’
Originally from Barcelona, Adriana has had a lifelong love of the sea.
‘I first learned to dive in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. After finishing high school I moved to the west coast of Ireland to study marine science, and that’s where I fell in love with kelp and seaweeds, working with a very famous seaweed expert, Professor Michael Guiry. I love Ireland’s wild and rugged coastline.’
It wasn’t just marine science that Adriana picked up in Ireland. She also developed a love and a knack for the music and storytelling that the Irish excel at. She earned a Masters in Science Communication and worked in the music and television industries for a few years.
‘I think storytelling has huge potential to reach a much wider audience than factual ways of communicating climate science like documentaries, which increasingly only preach to the converted. By engaging people through emotions, fiction can reach people in a much deeper way too, which can potentially inspire people to act.’
But the storytelling was always something she wanted to use to support the science.
She recently won the UNSW’s inaugural Emerging Thought Leadership prize for ‘her ability to merge science, the arts and powerful storytelling to inspire the community to respond to environmental crises, and to share this success story globally.’
That prize recognised her success in two initiatives – Operation Crayweed and Operation Posidonia. But more on those in a moment.
First, Adriana gave us a bit of background. Remember the redistribution of life on earth that Adriana said is happening faster in the oceans than on land? These are the implications.
‘For marine species in Australia, this means a lot of warm-water species are moving to higher latitudes, towards the south pole. So, for example, we are increasingly seeing more and more tropical species (which belong in places like the Great Barrier Reef) in places like Sydney, which is thousands of kilometres away. These species redistributions can greatly disrupt ecosystems.
In particular, my research has shown that when coral reef fish expand their distribution and become abundant in higher latitude reefs they can create havoc.
This is especially the case for herbivorous or vegetarian fish, which eat marine plants.
In their native tropical systems, corals (which are animals) are the main ‘foundation’ species. They provide the main habitat and shelter for hundreds of species, and so having lots of vegetarian fish in coral reefs is a good thing, because they eat the seaweeds that can otherwise take over the corals.
However, when vegetarian fish invade underwater forests they can have profound impacts by overgrazing the seaweeds that provide the main habitat and shelter for entire ecological communities.’
And this is where Adriana’s specialism in kelp and seagrass restoration comes into play. Her efforts centre on the Great Southern Reef. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
‘Although about 70% of Australians live right next to the Great Southern Reef, there is generally a low level of awareness about the importance of these cool-water seaweed dominated ecosystems. This lack of knowledge translates into lower levels of protection and research funding.’
But the Great Southern Reef, which spans over 8000km of the southern coastline of Australia, is a vitally important ecosystem.
‘It is dominated by beautiful and hugely productive seaweed forests that act like a ‘biological engine’, fuelling the system. The Great Southern Reef hosts huge biodiversity, and what’s most special is that a lot of its species are found nowhere else on Earth. So, for example, we have beautiful and delicate weedy and leafy sea dragons, giant cuttlefish and many unique species of red seaweeds.’
It’s against this backdrop that Adriana’s two Operations play out.
‘These projects are about restoring seaweed forests and seagrass meadows that used to dominate our coastlines, but that have disappeared from many urban coastlines and estuaries because of pollution or other human activities.
These seaweed and seagrass habitats are incredibly important because they act as foundation species that provide shelter, food and home for hundreds of species of fish and invertebrates, such as lobster, abalone, seahorses, bream and many others. These marine plants also capture carbon dioxide and in the case of seagrasses they can sequester at very high rates.
With Operation Crayweed, our goal is to re-establish lost forests of crayweed, a gorgeous, golden seaweed species that disappeared from the Sydney region in the 1980s, we think because of sewage pollution.
It disappeared off 70 km of coastline, and we have now been successful in reversing this local extinction and have started bringing self-sustaining and self-replenishing forests of crayweed to multiple sites in Sydney. Our overall aim, with time and more funding, is to restore it to the entire metropolitan area.
With Operation Posidonia, our goal is a bit different. We are focusing on a species of seagrass, Posidonia, that is currently endangered and on track to become extinct from several estuaries. We want to stop the decline of Posidonia and prevent it from disappearing.’
Adriana used her background in science communication to spread the word about her projects in unique ways. And the response from the community has been incredibly positive.
‘When we first started out our project Operation Crayweed we organised a crowdfunding campaign where we asked people to ‘give an underwater tree for Xmas’ and people responded in the most amazing way.
We raised $40,000 within just 60 days, with people giving as little as $20 for an underwater tree, or $50 for a ‘family’ (we still gratefully accept donations through our website!www.OperationCrayweed.com).
With Operation Posidonia, we started a community engagement campaign because we needed people to help us collect ‘donor’ seagrass material for the restoration.
Because there’s so little Posidonia left, we couldn’t just use seagrass from healthy meadows to restore new places (there’s not enough healthy material!) so we asked people to help us collect seagrass fragments that become naturally detached after big storms and big tides.
We did a whole bunch of workshops and talks and we got local communities totally engaged, leading to the collection of over 1500 Posidonia shoots in just one year. Really fantastic stuff.’
UNSW also runs the Grand Challenges Program, which brings academic research into the real world of government policy and the public opinion. As part of the Grand Challenge on climate change, Adriana organised an event called ‘Cli-Fi: Big Ideas for the small screen’.
‘This event brought together academics, top climate scientists and thinkers and about 100 of Australia’s best drama screen writers. Together, we discussed the science underpinning climate change, how that is already impacting our ecosystems and us humans (our health, our culture) and we also talked about solutions.
Then in the afternoon we had a session chaired by screen writer John Collee (Oscar winning writer of Happy Feet and Master and Commander) which started seeding the ideas to develop a drama TV series to provide a more compelling way for us all to better understand the impacts of climate change.
The screen writers were then invited to submit proposals to the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) for a TV anthology where each episode would be centred on human narratives, with characters living in a not-so-distant warmer future (50 years from now) have been deeply impacted by climate change.’
Despite the successes of these projects, Adriana knows that there is still a lot of work to be done to educate the general public about both the problem of climate change and the potential solutions.
‘It’s clear that the urgency of the situation is still not fully clear to most people, or else we’d already be collectively reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
I think we need to better communicate how climate change is already impacting us in major ways.
For example, right now here in Sydney we’re suffocating under smoke and fires that have been burning for WEEKS, even though summer only started two days ago!
We have hundreds of people dying every time there’s an intense heatwave, and we have major shifts in species distributions that are already impacting businesses in major ways, like wineries that can no longer grow certain grape varieties or fisheries that have to be closed because of the collapse of kelp forest ecosystems.
Even if we managed to stick to the Paris Agreement, our world will continue to warm by at least one degree more, and this means a lot of these changes will continue to become more and more apparent.
We need to start to adapt and think about how we can survive under these warmer conditions with more extreme events becoming the norm rather than the exception, and I think fiction can help us do that.’
But she’s also adamant that individual action, even on a small scale, is significant.
‘Without a doubt. Probably most important right now is to vote for political parties/ independent members that have clear climate policies to reduce CO2 emissions, and to try to connect with our local politicians to push for change.
But our individual actions beyond voting also matter, like reducing our carbon footprint by driving less, flying less (I personally struggle with that one, as my family is in Barcelona and I live in Sydney) and potentially changing our diet/ our shopping habits to support more sustainable ways of growing food.
If you can also get involved with local projects to rewild/ revegetate our environment that’s also an excellent way forward.’
We ended our conversation with a few rapid-fire questions for Adriana:
What are the unanswered questions or challenges we’re facing that keep you up at night?
‘I keep hearing from my physicists/ oceanography friends and colleagues that our models probably underestimate the true future impact of our current CO2 trajectory, and they also tell me about tipping points and positive feedback loops that if crossed could lead to even more sudden and extreme changes than the ones that we are already experiencing or predicting, which does fill me with terror.
But then there’s a side of me that cannot help but obsess about solutions and new ways forward to get us out of this mess…. So I try and encourage that kind of thinking when I go to bed!’
What book or film has changed your life and why?
‘I have always loved reading, and there are many books that have influenced me deeply.
I remember reading a beautiful book when I was a teenager called ‘Eh, Petrel!’, by Julio Villar (from Barcelona), about a solo around-the-world trip around the world on a small 8m yacht. I remember absolutely adoring the idea of adventure and discovery and connecting with nature and people. I already loved the ocean, and the idea of being on top of it for years while circumnavigating the globe was incredibly exciting and was probably the beginning of me deciding to become a marine biologist.
As for a film, I vividly remember the first time I watched Wings of Desire, by Wim Wenders. As a city person myself I could understand and connect to the Berlin depicted in the film and it made me think about the importance of seeing and being seen, of bearing witness and marking thoughts and moments, and about how love matters most. It was also the beginning of my devotion for Nick Cave.’
What do you never leave the house without?
When you get to the end of your life and look back at all you’ve done and seen, what do you want to be able to say about your life?
‘I loved deeply and I gave life a good go, trying to leave the planet an (even) better place.’
Given all you’ve seen and all you know, what are you most concerned about for the future? And what are you most hopeful for?
‘I’m most concerned about us taking too long to prevent catastrophic changes and I’m most hopeful for our ability to change things around and build a better future.
One that is no longer drastically reducing our carbon emissions and returning the planet to a stable equilibrium (of sorts) but is also a more socially just and pleasurable place to be. With less fumes and engine noises, with less consumerism and growth-obsessed governments, with more green spaces and more connection with nature.’
What’s next for you?
‘There’s still A LOT to do with regards to rewilding our coastlines. For example, the Operation Posidonia project is in its infancy – we’re really only at the stage of ‘proof-of-concept’. Over the next couple of years I’d like to take the project to all 6 estuaries where Posidonia is disappearing in eastern Australia.
And I’d like to continue working with my amazing team to understand the impacts of climate change in our oceans, and to develop ways to adapt while also protecting our marine environment.’
Where can people find you around the internet if they want to follow your journey?