Professor Thomas Wernberg

Started at UWA: 1999

My research covers a broad spectrum of topics, but my primary interests lie in the ecological interactions in and around shallow sub-tidal habitats. Although my interests are broad, and the principles I study general, much of my work has focused on temperate seaweed-dominated habitats, especially kelp forests.

My research provides understanding of how coastal habitats might respond to stressors such as climate change, invasive species and eutrophication.

Recently, I have also increased my focus on solutions to habitat decline through restoration and increasing our appreciation of the diversity of services our marine ecosystems provide, such as their role in climate mitigation. By working across sub-cellular to macro-ecological scales and connecting fields such as physiology, ecology and biogeography, my research has contributed to an integrated understanding of the complex processes that drive the ecology of near-shore marine environments.

Wernberg’s research group coined the term ‘Great Southern Reef’ (GSR) in 2015, to give an identity for the first time to the ~8,000 km ecosystem of kelp-dominated rocky reefs along Australia’s southern coastlines.The GSR has lost of more than 140,000 ha of its kelp forests due to climate change – loss of foundational habitat that underpins rich biodiversity, marine industries and the ‘blue carbon’ potential of our temperate marine systems. He is committed to future-proofing the valuable habitat and ecosystem services that kelp forests support.

Working with multidisciplinary depth and breadth, from sub-cellular through to biogeographical scales, Wernberg has revealed how climate change and marine heatwaves cause physiological stress to kelp forests leading to their collapse and the expansion of degraded turf seascapes, the tropicalisation of temperate reef communities, and the loss of ecological function and ecosystems services. His research on kelp forests in Australia and globally has produced some of the most comprehensive evidence and understanding to date of climate-mediated changes in temperate marine ecosystems, laying the foundations for mitigation and adaptation.

Wernberg’s team is driving innovative global efforts to harness adaptation genomics, in an effort to build resilience into reforestation. Coordinating the ‘green gravel action group’ with 15 kelp restoration projects on four continents, his team recently reported on the promise of ‘green gravel’ – small rocks seeded with resilient kelp and reared in the lab – that can be cheaply and easily dispersed over large areas. Wernberg’s investigations into carbon sequestered and stored by Australia’s kelp forests revealed that the GSR could potentially account for more than 30% of the Australia’s ‘blue carbon’, making a powerful case for proactive conservation and restoration efforts and, for recognition of the reef’s potential value in CO2 reduction.

Research excellence and impact

Wernberg has studies Australia's kelp forests for over 20 years, establishing their ecological and socioeconomic importance and driving fundamental advances in knowledge of how climate change affects kelp forests. His work includes first valuation of the ecosystem services provided by Australian kelp forests. In 2014 he co-founded the multidisciplinary Marine Heatwaves International Working Group that has since produced a series of papers defining the field of temperature extremes in the ocean. His team’s success in highlighting the vulnerability and value of the GSR led to its international recognition and designation in 2019 as a Mission Blue Hope Spot.

Achievements and awards

Ranked 373 in the world in Ecology & Evolution by (out of 6,363, top 6%)
Highly-Cited (‘HiCi’) Researcher, Web of Science Group, Clarivate Analytics.
Ranked 190 on Reuters’ Hot List of the World’s 1000 most influential climate scientists.
Highly-Cited (‘HiCi’) Researcher, Web of Science Group, Clarivate Analytics.
Ranked 89th highest cited researcher in the world in Marine Biology (top 0.24% of 37,000) by Loannidis et al. (2020, PLoS Biology).
Highly-Cited (‘HiCi’) Researcher, Web of Science Group, Clarivate Analytics.
Adjunct Professor, Roskilde University, Denmark.
Visiting International Lecturer’s award, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Host, 10th International Temperate Reefs Symposium.
Vice-Chancellors Award for Research Excellence, UWA
Australian Research Council Future Fellowship
UWA Career Development Award.
UWA Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.
ECU Research Fellowship.
PhD Thesis Distinction (top 5%), UWA.
International PhD Scholarship, Natural Sciences Research Council, Denmark.


Selected publications:

Wernberg T (2021) Marine heatwave drives collapse of kelp forests in Western Australia. In: Canadell JG, Jackson RB (eds) Ecosystem Collapse and Climate Change. Ecological Studies 241. Springer-Nature. Pp. 325-343.

Wernberg T*, Coleman MA*, Babcock RC, Bell SY, Bolton JJ, Connell SD, Hurd CL, Johnson CR, Marzinelli EM, Shears NT, Steinberg PD, Thomsen MS, Vanderklift MA, Vergés A, Wright JT (2019) Biology and ecology of the globally significant kelp Ecklonia radiataOceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review, 57: 265–324. *Shared lead authorship.

Wernberg T, Krumhansl K, Filbee-Dexter K, Pedersen MF (2019) Status and trends for the world’s kelp forests. In: World Seas: An Environmental Evaluation, Vol III: Ecological Issues and Environmental Impacts, 2e (Chapter 3). Ed. C. Sheppard. Elsevier. Pp. 57-78. ISBN 9780128052044.

Wernberg T, Coleman MA, Bennett S, Thomsen MS, Tuya F, Kelaher BP (2018) Genetic diversity and kelp forest vulnerability to climatic stress. Scientific Reports, 8: 1851.

Wernberg T, Straub SC (2016) 3.3 Impacts and effects of ocean warming on seaweeds. In: Explaining ocean warming: causes, scale, effects and consequences (eds. Laffoley D, Baxter JM); Full report. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. pp. 87-103.

Wernberg T, Bennett S, Babcock RC, de Bettignies T, Cure K, Depczynski M, Dufois F, Fromont J, Fulton CJ, Hovey RK, Harvey ES, Holmes TH, Kendrick GA, Radford B, Santana-Garcon J, Saunders BJ, Smale DA, Thomsen MS, Tuckett CA, Tuya F, Vanderklift MA, Wilson SK (2016) Climate driven regime shift of a temperate marine ecosystem. Science, 353(6295): 169-172.

Wernberg T, Smale, DA, Tuya F, Thomsen MS, Langlois TJ, de Bettignies T, Bennett S,  Rousseaux CS (2013) An extreme climatic event alters marine ecosystem structure in a global biodiversity hotspot, Nature Climate Change, 3: 78-82.

Wernberg, T., Smale, D.A., Verges, A., Campbell, A., Russell, B.D., Coleman, M.A., Ling, S.D., Steinberg, P.D., Johnson, C.R., Kendrick, G.A. & Connell, S.D. (2012). Macroalgae and temperate rocky reefs. In: Poloczanska, E.S., Hobday, A.J. & Richardson, A.J. (eds)  A Marine Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Report Card for Australia 2012

Wernberg, T., Smale, D.S., Thomsen, M.S. (2012) A decade of climate change experiments on marine organisms: procedures, patterns and problems, Global Change Biology, 18: 1491–1498

Wernberg, T., Russell, B.D., Thomsen, M.S., Gurgel, C.F.D., Bradshaw, C.J.A., Poloczanska, E.S., Connell, S.D. (2011) Seaweed communities in retreat from ocean warming. Current Biology, 21: 1828-1832.

Wernberg T., Russell B.D., Moore P.J., Ling S.D., Smale D.A., Campbell A., Coleman M.A., Steinberg P.D., Kendrick G.A., Connell S.D. (2011) Impacts of climate change in a global hotspot for temperate marine biodiversity and ocean warming. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 400: 7-16

Wernberg, T., Thomsen, M.S., Tuya, F., Kendrick, G.A., Staehr, P.A. & Toohey, B.D. (2010) Decreasing resilience of kelp beds along a latitudinal temperature gradient: potential implications for a warmer future. Ecology Letters, 13: 685-694

Full publication list:


Wernberg has attracted >$8M in competitive research funding, including a total of $3.4 million as lead CI on 8 successful ARC grants (5 DP, 2 LP, 1 FT) and significant international funding. This includes funding from research councils in Denmark ($230K), Norway ($1,830K), Portugal ($127K), China ($600K), South Africa ($160K) and New Zealand ($630). He has secured grants from The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC, $818K), The Hermon Slade Foundation ($80K), Schmidt Marine Technology Partners ($250K), and other industry and philanthropic funding totalling >$250K.