Nuclear test explosion in Mururoa atoll, French Polynesia, in 1971. The official expert group says the Anthropocene should begin about 1950 and is likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across Earth by nuclear bomb tests. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Nuclear test explosion in Mururoa atoll, French Polynesia, in 1971. The official expert group says the Anthropocene should begin about 1950 and is likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across Earth by nuclear bomb tests. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Influenced Age

By Damian Carrington, Guardian UK

29 August 16


Experts say human impact on Earth so profound that Holocene must give way to epoch defined by nuclear tests, plastic pollution and domesticated chicken

umanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – needs to be declared, according to an official expert group who presented the recommendation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town on Monday.

The new epoch should begin about 1950, the experts said, and was likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration.

The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.

“The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part,” said Prof Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA), which started work in 2009.

“If our recommendation is accepted, the Anthropocene will have started just a little before I was born,” he said. “We have lived most of our lives in something called the Anthropocene and are just realising the scale and permanence of the change.”

Prof Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and WGA secretary, said: “Being able to pinpoint an interval of time is saying something about how we have had an incredible impact on the environment of our planet. The concept of the Anthropocene manages to pull all these ideas of environmental change together.”

Prof Chris Rapley, a climate scientist at University College London and former director of the Science Museum in London said: “The Anthropocene marks a new period in which our collective activities dominate the planetary machinery.

“Since the planet is our life support system – we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship – interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. If you or I were crew on a smaller spacecraft, it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, fodder and climate control. But the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.” Rapley is not part of the WGA.

Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and former president of the Royal Society, said that the dawn of the Anthropocene was a significant moment. “The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere,” he said.

But Lord Rees added that there is also cause for optimism. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.”

The evidence of humanity’s impact on the planet is overwhelming, but the changes are very recent in geological terms, where an epoch usually spans tens of millions of years. “One criticism of the Anthropocene as geology is that it is very short,” said Zalasiewicz. “Our response is that many of the changes are irreversible.”

To define a new geological epoch, a signal must be found that occurs globally and will be incorporated into deposits in the future geological record. For example, the extinction of the dinosaurs 66m years ago at the end of the Cretaceous epoch is defined by a “golden spike” in sediments around the world of the metal iridium, which was dispersed from the meteorite that collided with Earth to end the dinosaur age.

For the Anthropocene, the best candidate for such a golden spike are radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests, which were blown into the stratosphere before settling down to Earth. “The radionuclides are probably the sharpest – they really come on with a bang,” said Zalasiewicz. “But we are spoiled for choice. There are so many signals.”

Other spikes being considered as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene include the tough, unburned carbon spheres emitted by power stations. “The Earth has been smoked, with signals very clearly around the world in the mid-20th century,” said Zalasiewicz.

Other candidates include plastic pollution, aluminium and concrete particles, and high levels of nitrogen and phosphate in soils, derived from artificial fertilisers. Although the world is currently seeing only the sixth mass extinction of species in the 700m-year history of complex life on Earth, this is unlikely to provide a useful golden spike as the animals are by definition very rare and rarely dispersed worldwide.

In contrast, some species have with human help spread rapidly across the world. The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists. “Since the mid-20th century, it has become the world’s most common bird. It has been fossilised in thousands of landfill sites and on street corners around the world,” said Zalasiewicz. “It is is also a much bigger bird with a different skeleton than its prewar ancestor.”

The 35 scientists on the WGA – who voted 30 to three in favour of formally designating the Anthropocene, with two abstentions – will now spend the next two to three years determining which signals are the strongest and sharpest. Crucially, they must also decide a location which will define the start of the Anthropocene. Geological divisions are not defined by dates but by a specific boundary between layers of rock or, in the case of the Holocene, a boundary between two ice layers in a core taken from Greenland and now stored in Denmark.

The scientists are focusing on sites where annual layers are formed and are investigating mud sediments off the coast of Santa Barbara in California and the Ernesto cave in northern Italy, where stalactites and stalagmites accrete annual rings. Lake sediments, ice cores from Antarctica, corals, tree rings and even layers of rubbish in landfill sites are also being considered.

Once the data has been assembled, it will be formally submitted to the stratigraphic authorities and the Anthropocene could be officially adopted within a few years. “If we were very lucky and someone came forward with, say, a core from a classic example of laminated sediments in a deep marine environment, I think three years is possibly viable,” said Zalasiewicz.

This would be lightning speed for such a geological decision, which in the past would have taken decades and even centuries to make. The term Anthropocene was coined only in 2000, by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, who believes the name change is overdue. He said in 2011: “This name change stresses the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth.” Crutzen also identified in 2007 what he called the “great acceleration” of human impacts on the planet from the mid-20th century.

Despite the WGA’s expert recommendation, the declaration of the Anthropocene is not yet a forgone conclusion. “Our stratigraphic colleagues are very protective of the geological time scale. They see it very rightly as the backbone of geology and they do not amend it lightly,” said Zalasiewicz. “But I think we can prepare a pretty good case.”

Rapley also said there was a strong case: “It is highly appropriate that geologists should pay formal attention to a change in the signal within sedimentary rock layers that will be clearly apparent to future generations of geologists for as long as they exist. The ‘great acceleration’ constitutes a strong, detectable and incontrovertible signal.”

Evidence of the Anthropocene

Human activity has:

    • Pushed extinction rates of animals and plants far above the long-term average. The Earth is on course to see 75% of species become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue.
    • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover.
    • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with fertiliser use. This is likely to be the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years.
  • Left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice such as black carbon from fossil fuel burning.



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-5# universlman 2016-08-29 13:46

Hopefully the Nuclear War, triggered by the rise in the popularity of Trump’s pissed-off minions and the eventual election of a Donald T-party President will trigger the nuclear winter we need to cancel out the impending global warming. . .
+7# newell 2016-08-29 14:19

On a bit brighter note, most of the world’s environmental problems, including global warming are because of our numbers. Which by one child incentives are very fixable. Our feet are going to get wet but there is still time to prop up the sky. …..And trying to make Homo sapiens green is like trying to turn the tide. Green is great–it just ain’t workin. We evolved in trees. We shit where we are. Our species is what it is. We just need less of us.
0# Farafalla 2016-08-30 00:58

That isn’t true at all. Unless you are a follower of Thomas Malthus, one of the world’s great misanthropes.

When you look at the ecological footprint that different countries have on the earth’s resources, the rich (minority) countries of the world exact the highest claims on resources. The US is barely 5% of the world’s population. We consume 25% of the world’s crude petroleum. Nothing we do can be replicated in a sustainable way. China and India have a smaller ecological footprint per capita when compared to the world average than the US, France, Israel, Canada and others.

Your Malthusianism would welcome the elimination of half of humanity? Which half? Let’s start with yours.

+6# newell 2016-08-30 04:58

Malthus and Ehrlich were both correct. Their mistake was predicting exactly when. I can correctly predict that too many mice in a cage will become more aggressive, may starve and will be more susceptible to disease. But predicting exactly when would be a mistake. And you don’t understand “one child incentives”? It is not “elimination”. It is attrition. Why is 7.4 billion better than 1 billion? Agree that the rich countries use too much and the “incentives” I referred to for fewer offspring would restrict highly consuming parents even more. But “Let’s start with yours”? is that supposed to be cute?, witty? Environmental threats to the earth are vitally important, but you treat them like some petulant child on the playground.
+1# lfeuille 2016-08-30 19:38

I really don’t think that is fair. Who is going to decide who gets to have children and who doesn’t? Hint: It won’t be the 99%. The most resource consuming humans will be the ones who make the rules for their own benefit.
+1# Kauai John 2016-08-30 10:51

Unfortunately, the humans that will survive the coming apocalypse are going to be those from countries that can build the structures needed to survive. Consider the report on the water in Bangladesh that states 60% is unsuitable for drinking or growing food.

Then there is the rise of artificial intelligence. Pittsburg is already deploying driverless cars by Uber. A TED talk from 2014 is predicting AI will be making very fast advances in the next decade. There is no reason to think that AI wouldn’t have to worry about water.

When you vote on which half of humanity to eliminate you should remember which half has the bombs.

+1# John Puma 2016-08-30 12:37

You have the 5% and 25% part correct. But you fail to follow the logic.

Only 20% of the world’s population can live at the US level of consumption.

But capitalism finally “won” and the future of human-kind has lost.

All 7+ billion are now convinced (by decades of our Cold War propaganda) that they deserve our standard of living.

As a result they generally refuse to commit to thwarting their development to accommodate our demands they do so to deal with climate change.

There WILL be serious reduction of the world population but not in the way sanctimonious anti-Malthisian s erroneously suggest.

-4# indian weaver 2016-08-30 06:13

Hey, that was my idea first! I’ve stated this same thing many times in environmental ACD articles. I still believe that a full on nuclear war is the planet’s only hope for survival, to abort the deadly, oncoming train that is the wrecked planet destroyed by humans. Most life will suffer, die, go extinct no matter what. But all will most likely die with ACD. Much will survive a full blown nuclear war, although possibly damaged genetically and in other ways. I think with no nuclear war to abort or possibly abort ACD, the planet will self-incinerate in what will become nuclear planetary implosion, the biggest nuclear bomb possible – the entire planet. And it’ll all burn up in the nuclear solar fires and blow away as dust.
-2# indian weaver 2016-08-30 06:14

Nuclear war is much more likely to be caused by Hillary than Trump.
+3# Kauai John 2016-08-30 10:53

Quoting indian weaver:

Nuclear war is much more likely to be caused by Hillary than Trump.

So you’re going to vote for Clinton then?

0# Cassandra2012 2016-08-30 15:48

Quoting indian weaver:

Nuclear war is much more likely to be caused by Hillary than Trump.

Not very likely since Trump makes us suffer from his Narcissistic Personality Disorder which includes spontaneous eruption at any criticism — rather like a third grader — and his inability to control his temper…. his finger on the nuclear button is a truly frightening prospect(your apparent fright (or at least insecurities) in relation to powerful women leaders notwithstanding.
Trump’s authoritarian – megalomaniacal- misogynistic, bigoted, xenophobic (etc.) neo-fascist bullying does not augur well.

+1# lfeuille 2016-08-30 19:42

Hers is more scary to me. She is cold and determined and will follow through. He will get distracted before he is halfway through entering the endless series of codes necessary for detonation.
# Guest 2016-08-29 15:18

This comment has been deleted by Administrator
# Guest 2016-08-29 15:52

This comment has been deleted by Administrator
-3# janie1893 2016-08-30 01:10

There will be far fewer human beings in the foreseeable future. Humanity will be extinct within a couple of hundred years.
+2# Bruce Gruber 2016-08-30 05:28

The species we named and speak has proven the Peter Principle. The instincts for domination and accumulation of our primitive, reptilian brainstem will exterminate any interlocking developmental salvation toward which we might evolve.
“Be fruitful and multiply” is our curse.
+2# indian weaver 2016-08-30 06:19

The Bible’s / Christians’ ethic to rule and dominate the earth and all animals is another major source of planetary destruction by the greed and arrogance of humans. The Christians have contributed the greatest sin of all: disrespect for our Great Mother, consume her, rule and force her into the image of Man, and kill her with raping her to death. That is who we are as Christians – planetary murderers. All Native Peoples had it right – a sustainable lifeway. But technological civilization has wiped out concern for any others, especially our fellow passengers riding on Mother Earth. That is who capitalism is: the rapist of our Great Mother, and murdering her, based on greed and arrogance.
0# Kootenay Coyote 2016-08-30 20:11

The original message was to ‘be fruitful & multiply’. Its is evidently possible to multiply beyond fruitfulness: making a wasteland is not being fruitful.
+2# Citizen Mike 2016-08-30 07:05

Interesting, the process by which we give things ritual names in order to take power over them. Same as we do with diseases. Ritual naming is a shamanic function.
+1# Citizen Mike 2016-08-30 07:38

It is finished, the earth’s climate balance is changing to adopt to what we have done, and our civilization will dissolve in a coming global catastrophe. I think this happens every twelve thousand years or so, mankind rises from savagery to a high technological civilization which pollutes everything and causes massive climate change that sends us back to savagery, it is cyclic. Last time it ended the ice age and made the earth’s crust slip to relocate the poles, which caused Antarctica to become covered with ice, but freed Europe and America. The remnants of that previous civilization might be found under the southern ice cap.
0# Kauai John 2016-08-30 11:21

“Way Down, below the ocean
Where I wanna be.”

Hail Atlantis.

OTOH, if the civilization you envision was as technical as you say, there would be all kinds of evidence all around us. So, that civilization surely did not cause the ice age to end.

+1# Citizen Mike 2016-08-30 12:32

There is some fragmentary evidence, as was summarized by Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. If Homo Sap has been on earth 200K years that is plenty of time for civilization to have risen and fallen a few times, and I am inclined to believe this present civilization is not the first.
+1# Edwina 2016-08-30 10:44

Many civilizations have come and gone because they became unbalanced — overused resources, and/or had changing weather patterns. The difference this time is that we have a global system. The effects of our activities will be global. I guess the elite decision-makers think they will be able to hie off to Mars when this planet becomes unlivable. The kind of magical thinking that has university labs trying to develop a mechanical bee to replace the bees that now pollinate our food crops.

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