You’re probably familiar with the Jurassic or even the Cambrian time spans, but have you heard of the Anthropocene? The geologic time scale divides earth’s history into eons (hundreds of millions to billions of years), eras (hundreds of millions of years), periods (tens of millions of years), and epochs (several million years). Each division in time is indicative of significant historical events that are evidenced through fossil records and geologic formations. Study.com simplifies this to say “scientists use fossils, rock layers, and their positions relative to each other to put the history of the earth into order.”
The Anthropocene is a relatively new term that’s been proposed to describe the current geologic epoch. One that has been influenced not by asteroid impacts or major tectonic shifts but by the presence of humans. The term is derived from the Greek words for “human” (anthropo-) and “new” (-cene).
Anthropocene Debate: If
The term Anthropocene has not yet been officially adopted by the International Union of Geological Sciences because of a few ongoing debates. For one, epochs span fairly long periods of time. Geologically speaking, humans haven’t really been around that long. But is it long enough to make a significant impact on the earth and its planetary systems?
Additionally, as this National Geographic article notes, “the boundaries between epochs are defined by changes preserved in sedimentary rocks—the emergence of one type of commonly fossilized organism, say, or the disappearance of another.” Much of human-caused changes don’t show up in the rock record today and won’t for a long time.
To settle the score on what actually would show up in the geologic record, the International Union of Geological Sciences created a Working Group on the Anthropocene. As recently as 2019, the Working Group proposed the following phenomena as associated with the Anthropocene (and observable in the rock record):
- increase in erosion and sediment transport associated with urbanization and agriculture
- marked and abrupt anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals together with new chemical compounds
- environmental changes generated by these perturbations, including global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic ‘dead zones’
- rapid changes in the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, explosion of domestic animal populations and species invasions
- the proliferation and global dispersion of many new ‘minerals’ and ‘rocks’ including concrete, fly ash and plastics, and the myriad ‘technofossils’ produced from these and other materials.
Yeah, technofossils – I had to look that one up. They’re the preservable material remains of human activities and habits. Or, the fossil remains of the human-generated equivalent to the biosphere.
Anthropocene Debate: When
Another question circulating among scientific groups is when the Anthropocene should be noted as having started. Is it at the dawn of agriculture and resulting deforestation 6,000 years ago? Or at the start of the industrial revolution and the increase of airborne particulates and gasses in the 1800s? Or at the drop of the first atomic bombs which blanketed the earth in radioactive particles in the 1940s?
The Anthropocene Working Group is leaning toward the mid-twentieth century. They note this coincides with “the array of geological proxy signals preserved within recently accumulated strata and resulting from the ‘Great Acceleration’ of population growth, industrialization and globalization.”
While the process to have the term Anthropocene officially adopted may take years, the term has picked up in use among non-geologic scientific groups and colloquially.
Find out more from these resources:
Anthropocene: The Documentary
An award-winning team of documentary filmmakers has recently released Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. Noted as a “cinematic meditation on humanity’s massive reengineering of the planet,” the film follows the research of the Anthropocene Working Group and their nearly 10 years of research.
Check out the trailer here:
In Case You Missed It…
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