The Anthropocene: Have humans moved into a new age?

A report published by the Anthropocene Working Group, has suggested that humans have altered the planet to such an extent that a new Epoch classification should be introduced. Members from the Working Group, which include scientists from Leicester University, University of York, The Max-Planck Institute and British Geological Society, have stated that recent deposits of new minerals and rock types will leave a distinctly different signature in the geological record.

The report suggests that rapid distribution of materials like plastic, concrete and aluminium in abundance has formed “technofossils”, which in millions of years’ time will produce new types of stratigraphy never seen before on record.  The increased use of fossils fuels has amplified the geochemical signatures of polyaromatic hydrocarbons and Lead. The use of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture since 1947-1950 has doubled the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus present in the soil.

Indicators of the Anthropocene in recent lake sediments differ markedly from Holocene signatures

Indicators of the Anthropocene in recent lake sediments differ markedly from Holocene signatures – AAAS

The global CO2 and CH4 levels have increased above the norm of the Holocene (currently accepted Epoch) with major changes occurring between 1850-1950. The average global temperatures have increased from 0.6oC to 0.9oC from 1900 – present and has now risen beyond the Holocene variation of the last 14’000 yrs. The detonation of Nuclear bombs in war and tests have increased the amount of radioactive fallout, causing spikes in 14C and 239Pu and other artificial radionuclides that peaks in 1964.


Great Pacific Garbage Patch, photo author Lindsey Hoshaw (CC BY 2.0)

Biologically there has been an increase in the amount of animal extinctions, many of which can be attributed to human activities. The increase in deforestation and land-use has caused increased erosional rates and has destroyed many habitats. Current estimates for the rate of extinction lie between 1000 – 10000 times higher than the background extinction rate. Unlike previous mass extinctions, the current extinction is the result of human doings.


The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 include plastic marine debris fed the chick by its parents. (Chris Jordan)

The report estimates that the Early Anthropocene started with the spread of agriculture and deforestation; the Industrial Revolution at 1800C; and the mid-20th century great acceleration of population and growth.

The published paper produced by the Anthropocene Working Group is still a work in progress and needs approval from the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which are the government body for geological chronostratigraphical units. The famous chronostratigraphic chart which is present in all major textbooks and papers will need to be changed to account for the new Epoch if it is accepted.

Do you think we are in a new era? If so, please leave a comment below!

Saad Bhatty

Blogger, journalist, geologist and Tech-enthusiast. There is always something to write about!

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