Climate Change Sediment column showing abrupt transition to the Anthropocene (sciencemag.org)

Published on January 10th, 2016 | by Sandy Dechert

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Human Technology Defines New Geologic Epoch: The Anthropocene

January 10th, 2016 by  

Remember hearing back in school the basic explanation of geologic periods and epochs and the creatures that inhabited the world during those times? Thanks to Jurassic Park and other science fiction narratives, the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era come to mind immediately. Experts now tell us that with technology, humans may have progressed the earth’s geology into a farther stage. People came into the picture in the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period, our current time period. Or so we thought.

On Friday, in a paper entitled “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” the journal Science published results of a stratigraphic study by a 24-member international team led by Colin N. Waters of the British Geological Survey.

Sediment column showing abrupt transition to the Anthropocene (sciencemag.org/J.P.Briner)

Sediment column showing abrupt transition to the Anthropocene (sciencemag.org/J.P.Briner)

Through sediments and ice cores, the scientists reviewed climatic, biological, and geochemical evidence of human activity and technological changes. In this sediment core from western Greenland (see photo), glacier retreat due to climate warming caused by human activities results in an abrupt stratigraphic transition from proglacial sediments to nonglacial organic matter as the Anthropocene began. They define the criteria for declaring a new geological epoch:

“Any formal recognition of an Anthropocene epoch in the geological time scale hinges on whether humans have changed the Earth system sufficiently to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice that is distinct from that of the Holocene epoch.”

According to their investigation, the stratigraphic evidence points to a new post-Holocene epoch beginning sometime in the mid–20th century. It includes atmospheric carbon emissions higher than those of the last 65 million years, similarly elevated methane levels, and sea levels higher than those of the past 115,000 years.

The Guardian quotes Waters:

“We could be looking here at a stepchange from one world to another that justifies being called an epoch. What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”

The importance of the study lies in its revelation of the scale of changes experienced in the recent past. Waters describes it as “a whole set of changes to not just the atmosphere, but the oceans, the ice–the glaciers that we’re using for this project, might not be here in 10,000 years.”

A year 2000 contribution under the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer first posited the existence of an Anthropocene epoch. In 2011, The Economist described in detail both the process and the paradigm shift involved in such a transition.

Human activities disrupt the usual nitrogen cycle (economist.com)

Here’s a short list of the changes technology has wrought:

  • Extinction rates of flora and fauna far exceed the long-term average. 75% of current species will become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue.
  • Fossil fuel-burning since the industrial revolution has increased the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 120 parts per million.
  • Nuclear weapon tests in the 1950s and 60s left detectable traces of the isotopes 14C (fairly common) and the naturally rare isotope, 293Pu.
  • So much human-created plastic is in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are everywhere and will even leave fossil records of their own.
  • Fertilizer use has doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in the soils in what may be the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years
  • Airborne soot, largely including black carbon from fossil fuel-burning, has created a permanent marker in both sediment and glacial ice.

It will be interesting for future geologists to observe the effects of the cleantech era.

 
 
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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."



  • Riely Rumfort

    Yeah, Earthship housing is fairly efficient/sustainable and NBR seems like a okay idea, though it immediately occurred to me that taxing those same deterred actions is equivalent.
    It’s moreso seems the shift of consciousness is occuring because on the internet or in a given community those whom do have such altruism group naturally. The greater body of man has hardly even had the thought occur of the impact of their actions. Most of it seems too little too late to me as far as a shift goes, small percentage gains year on year instead of swift concise action.

    • Dan

      I am personally ashamed for having not acted faster and in the right ways growing up. Though I do spread awareness and try tobdo what I can in my life, I drifted out of focus in college from the path I was truly on and am only recently finding my footing again. We are going to prepare for the worst and do our best with what we can now, teach our children if we are lucky (we may adopt). As far as incentives, taxing serves to lower a price, but the idea of NBR offers a unique way to award people for truly net benefit activities that otherwise one would never be paid for, unless by a government agency. Taxing I suppose could offer deductions for planting trees or cleaning the ocean, but whole businesses could spring up around replenishing the earth’s ecosystems using NBR…

      • Riely Rumfort

        It would seem to me we have <5 years to change our agricultural techniques to far more stable perma/aquacultural, 10 years to cut our carbon in half, and 15 for methane, or our chances of avoiding cataclysm aren't good.

        • Dan

          Farmed Here, in Chicago and Will Allen’s Michigan Aquaponic growing power group are extremely encouraging to me. Then again, there area lot of mouths to feed. : Thank you Riely for keeping your ear to the ground and sharpening my focus to the horizon 🙂

          • Riely Rumfort

            Actual name is Brent, all phases of my life plan should kick off in mid 2018, saving money like Andy Dufresne in preparation. Going to build a one of a kind house, automated Arduino style Greenhouse Aquaculture system. You may just read about it in 2019 with a little luck.
            I’d advise reading Encyclopedia of Aquaculture by Robert R. Stickney and Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg, and Thank you for being a forward thinking participant of the next world model.

          • Dan

            Googled Arduino Greenhouse and am glad I did. Thanks for the reading suggestions too, into the notebook they go for when I get the chance to check it out. I’m still rooting for copiosis too and in general pysched about the people and attitudes i’ve encountered on the interwebs lately. Every journey begins with a single step!

  • Martin

    I am just very curious what the climate change deniers will have to say to that science paper?
    Will they try to argue it is not proven?

    • sault

      They’ll ignore it just like they’ve ignored the thousands of other scientific papers showing how bad we’re messing up the planet. Their paychecks depend on it.

      • Ross

        The paychecks will start to dry up as the business models for continuing with fossil fuel use collapse. It could happen sooner than we hope.

  • Riely Rumfort

    “75% of current species will become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue”

    Thankfully current trends won’t continue far beyond 80 years.

    • Harry Johnson

      Trends will change but we’re stuck with global warming for at least another 100 years or more. Expanding deserts and failed crops will mean anything edible will be killed or cut down. Many species are just hanging on right now. Forests are already dying from climate change besides out of control clear cutting. The oceans will be a dead pool of garbage.
      But maybe they will cure baldness.

      • Riely Rumfort

        I myself see things as going possibly different, cooling from 18′ to 35′, then run away heating til 2070-90 at which point we have a Northern Atlantic Gyre collapse. But yes, the Earth is suffering in a variety of ways, pollution and radiation, cutting, soil degradation, an indoctrination into consumerism with a stronghold seemingly more severe every generation.
        To quote myself;
        ” I’m furtherly astonished that a society so intentionally sterile can evoke such a response of disgust.Anymore I can hardly gut it, the defacing of the natural world, the lacking any sense of humility, the archaic traditionalism.
        A world lost in a holding pattern chucking species to stay afloat, with withering roots, a family tree set for a fall, tumbling after the forgotten foundation we left to rust below our corrosive unfoldings.
        Is that the greatest evil we can imagine, the loss of man?
        I couldn’t agree less.”

      • Dan

        Perhaps, but as Ivor points out above, excess electricity in the long run will enable huge public works projects if we could ever mobilize around them. California needs desalination now and in the MENA region. With some thoughtful permaculture techniques and acknowledgement of the need for land management it’s possible to do something about it. I’ve always found the terraces of the Inca’s and other massive ancient engineering projects to be inspiring and the sci fi nerd in me wants to see some cool technology fixes for these existential threats. I’ll grant that what I’m about to suggest sounds far fetched at first, I am really encouraged to find anyone thinking along these lines. Copiosis is a group that is trying to enact the ideas put forward by the Venus Project who view our monetary system as intrinsically flawed. They suggest an alternative they call Net Benefit Reward. People are granted NBR for services that improve society or the world ect… anyway to incentivize doing the right thing sounds like it is at least on the righ tract to me.

        • Riely Rumfort

          Copiosis and Venus Project are interesting concepts but by my vantage just become another centralized body. Centralization leads to corruption and oppression in eventuality no matter how strong the ideals of it’s origins.
          I agree more sustainable practices ‘Must’ be adopted in all forms of cultivation; power, sustenance, and products.
          My solution is more one of self-reliance and proximal production of all needs, a user centralized experience. I spent time designing such a habitat only to come to the conclusion it would make mankind too impervious to nature. To put it briefly, with it’s utility and durability Earth would have a very difficult time striking man down for his misdeeds which inevitably would occur. The selfish nature of man and the lacking scope of consideration are truly the limit for a decently ethical inventor, not what he can do but what he should. For all the graces technology grants those in power nearly always find a way to destroy the natural world or oppress their fellow man with another’s good will. What I mean to say is I’m not sure there is any correct answer without a shift in consciousness.

          • Zanstel

            Centralization and corruption are not binded. Probably all concentration of power is a high risk of corruption, but concentration of management is not the same as power. Collective decisions don’t imply relay this decisions on a small group of people. There is solutions like direct democracy, algorithmic solutions (challenge the possible solutions with the recordings of past events and simulations to try to infere the result), etc.
            And the scope of collective decisions is only needed where the acts of one interfere with another (like pollution or consumption).
            More than a centralized society, I see the oportunity of a fractal society of “abundance” where the abundance is guaranteed in the basic needs (food, water, home, healthcare, electricity, information, etc.)

          • Dan

            I like to think the shift in conciousness is happening (except for republicans)

          • Bob_Wallace

            Even for Republicans.

            They just move a lot slower….

          • Dan

            I like to give them a hard time, they’ve earned it. But yes, even the Republicans are figuring things out. My home town is super conservative and I see Teslas driving around pretty often, though there may not be a coorelation between the two.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We’re seeing Republicans in places with good wind resources advocating for more support for wind. We’re seeing Republicans starting to advocate for solar.

            As they realize that it’s cheaper to drive EVs then we’ll see them driving more EVs.

            Progress will continue with half the population moving faster than the other half.

          • Dan

            Yeah, it’s just the Koch brothers really get to me. Honest republicans with integrity are fine by me.

          • Ross

            There was a Bush (W not Jeb) sticker in the garage of the Tesla owner demonstrating the Summon feature.

          • Dan

            Hey Bob. Could u let that really long pending comment through… please? 🙂

          • Bob_Wallace

            Saw it a few moments earlier.

      • Brooks Bridges

        And we’ll have autonomous cars and 10 foot TV screens.

  • JamesWimberley

    “It will be interesting for future geologists to observe the effects of the cleantech era.” Well, less; by itself, renewable enrgy should be geologically invisible. Bullet point 2 – higher CO2 – will have a long-term footprint, but if humanity follows the Paris commitment of a return to carbon neutrality before the end of the century, this will be defined; and less if, as seems quite likely, the dangers require mass sequestration and a return of CO2 concentrations to near pre-industrial levels. Bullet points 3 (radioactive isotopes from nuclear weapons) and 5 (soot) are one-offs. This is not optimism but simply inferring the preconditions for the future existence of geologists. Both large-scale nuclear war and unrestricted fossil fuel burning would probably rule this out.

    • Ivor O’Connor

      I go on and on about how we will in the coming decades be producing not only all our electrical needs but our heating and transportation energy via excess solar and wind. Perhaps producing 400% of our current electrical needs. I’m always thinking of what smart energy loads the excess energy can be shunted to. Like desalination plants. However another big one I’ve totally overlooked is carbon sequestration plants. Between the two we’ll never have to worry about wasting excess electricity!

      • Bob_Wallace

        You’re missing the inefficiency of most of our primary energy, at least the low efficiency of how we convert the energy into use.

        See all that grey stuff in the upper right? That’s energy we do not have to replace with RE. We need to replace the green stuff just below minus what we already get from RE plus small losses. Net, probably less than the green stuff.

        • Ivor O’Connor

          Thank you for the chart. I look at it and see we basically use 100 units of energy. 60 of those units are wasted. Of the remaining 40 units 12 are supplied via electricity. Now we round those numbers and 40 is about 400% more than 10. Generating about 4x more electricity than we currently produce seems about exactly what we need. Or am I missing something?

          Technically it would be somewhere between 300 to 400%. But we need extra energy to handle the desalination and sequestration plants of the future to handle the damage we’ve been doing to our environment.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yep. I’ll buy that. I read your “400% of our current electrical needs” as energy needs. My bad.

          • sault

            Hey, we can counteract sea level rise by pumping New Orleans, Miami, NYC, etc. flood waters into desalinization plants and save ourselves the trouble of pumping this water twice!

          • Dan

            I often think of how the whole city of Chicago was elevated after the great chicago fire. The land was too soft and boggy so they built an elevated foundation for a huge portion of the city. Maybe something like that is possible for areas of the world certain to be affected.

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