Human impact may have pushed Earth into a new geological epoch; at least that’s what the scientists are saying. In the day of climate change mobilisation, a panel of eminent scientists voted last week to formally recognise the dawn of Anthropocene, the age of man.
According to Nature, 29 of the 34-member Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) voted in favour of starting the new epoch “in the mid-twentieth century, when a rapidly rising human population accelerated the pace of industrial production, the use of agricultural chemicals, and other human activities”.
The panel plans to submit a formal proposal for the new epoch by 2021 to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which oversees the official Geological Time Scale.
What this means
An epoch is basically a vast period of geological time spanning millennia. Until recently, we officially inhabited the Holocene that began roughly 11,700 years ago and was defined by a period of relative climatic stability.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ was coined in 2000 by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to denote the present geological time interval in which human activity has profoundly altered many conditions and processes on Earth.
The phenomena associated with the Anthropocene, as per AWG’s report, include an increase in erosion and sediment transport associated with urbanisation and agriculture, marked and abrupt anthropogenic perturbations of the carbon cycle causing global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, changes in the biosphere, and global dispersion of new ‘minerals’, including concrete, fly ash, plastics, and ‘technofossils’ they produce.
What should our golden spike moment be?
The influential panel, which met three years ago at the 2016 International Geological Congress to recognise Earth’s entry into a new era, is now tasked with identifying the geological marker, or golden spike, for the age of man.
Also known as the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, the origin of Anthropocene will presumably be back-dated to the 1950s marking when mankind started damaging the environment irrevocably; however, some have argued that the starting date for the epoch should be the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution 12,000-15,000 years ago.
Anthropocene aka Atomic Age?
Many in the AWG believe that the atomic Hydrogen bomb tests from the early 1950s led to the spread of artificial radionuclides (radioactive debris) across the world.
They are now present everywhere—embedded in the geological record of everything from marine sediments to glacial ice, even stalagmites and stalactites. This is believed to have effectively changed the course of geological evolution, making the Trinity test in 1945 a strong contender for the golden spike.
Increased fossil fuel consumption and the surge of chicken farming are also potential candidates for marking Anthropocene’s start.
Why this matters
Jan Zalasiewicz, geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the AWG, told Inverse that while we are still technically in the Holocene—an epoch that began around 12,000 years ago—“in reality, many important geological conditions of Earth are now outside the envelope of conditions that have characterised the great bulk of the Holocene.”
“Getting an official designation of the Anthropocene would reflect this new reality,” said Zalasiewicz, “and help us analyse it more effectively.”
The move to identify an era where destructive human impact has superseded natural evolution serves as the official scientific nod to recognise that humankind has radically and drastically altered the planet with its incessant burning of fossil fuels, use of nuclear weapons, and more.
A landmark biodiversity report released earlier this month found 1 million plant and animal species facing extinction.
To compare, only 300 mammal species have disappeared since the last ice age 130,000 years ago; humans have been around for about 200,000 years.
Another report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the planet will reach the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, precipitating the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.
Echoing this sentiment, UN’s most comprehensive report on the state of the global environment released in March concludes that “ecological foundations of society” are in peril, attributing it to “unsustainable human activities globally”, which have degraded Earth’s ecosystems.
“A major species extinction event, compromising planetary integrity and Earth’s capacity to meet human needs, is unfolding,” it says.
The proposed epoch has been fiercely debated within the scientific community. But with the panel now deliberating on the exact moment in history when the new age will begin, this brand new piece of geologic record is expected to become a part of history and geography textbooks soon.
Last week’s vote, however, was over a decade in the making, and just the first step in the process of formally recognising the Anthropocene epoch.
Panel members of the AWG are expected to meet in Berlin sometime next week to plan the next two years of research. A team has already identified 10 sites around the world for studying finely preserved sedimentary strata that can help determine the golden spike. The group hopes that findings from at least one of the sites will make it to the formal proposal.
When asked what are some of the points they will be putting forward in the proposal in 2021, Zalasiewicz told Meaww, “We will be including data to show how well different types of human impact—physical, chemical, and biological—are preserved geologically within these strata” and how it can provide a picture of a potential Holocene-Anthropocene boundary.
After the International Commission of Stratigraphy votes on AWG’s proposal, it will move up to the International Union of Geological Sciences, which will take the final call.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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