- Jan ZalasiewiczJan ZalasiewiczDepartment of Geology, University of Leicester
- and Colin WatersColin WatersBritish Geological Survey
The Anthropocene hypothesis—that humans have impacted “the environment” but also changed the Earth’s geology—has spread widely through the sciences and humanities. This hypothesis is being currently tested to see whether the Anthropocene may become part of the Geological Time Scale. An Anthropocene Working Group has been established to assemble the evidence. The decision regarding formalization is likely to be taken in the next few years, by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the body that oversees the Geological Time Scale. Whichever way the decision goes, there will remain the reality of the phenomenon and the utility of the concept.
The evidence, as outlined here, rests upon a broad range of signatures reflecting humanity’s significant and increasing modification of Earth systems. These may be visible as markers in physical deposits in the form of the greatest expansion of novel minerals in the last 2.4 billion years of Earth history and development of ubiquitous materials, such as plastics, unique to the Anthropocene. The artefacts we produce to live as modern humans will form the technofossils of the future. Human-generated deposits now extend from our natural habitat on land into our oceans, transported at rates exceeding the sediment carried by rivers by an order of magnitude. That influence now extends increasingly underground in our quest for minerals, fuel, living space, and to develop transport and communication networks. These human trace fossils may be preserved over geological durations and the evolution of technology has created a new technosphere, yet to evolve into balance with other Earth systems.
The expression of the Anthropocene can be seen in sediments and glaciers in chemical markers. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by ~45 percent above pre–Industrial Revolution levels, mainly through combustion, over a few decades, of a geological carbon-store that took many millions of years to accumulate. Although this may ultimately drive climate change, average global temperature increases and resultant sea-level rises remain comparatively small, as yet. But the shift to isotopically lighter carbon locked into limestones and calcareous fossils will form a permanent record. Nitrogen and phosphorus contents in surface soils have approximately doubled through increased use of fertilizers to increase agricultural yields as the human population has also doubled in the last 50 years. Industrial metals, radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing, and complex organic compounds have been widely dispersed through the environment and become preserved in sediment and ice layers.
Despite radical changes to flora and fauna across the planet, the Earth still has most of its complement of biological species. However, current trends of habitat loss and predation may push the Earth into the sixth mass extinction event in the next few centuries. At present the dramatic changes relate to trans-global species invasions and population modification through agricultural development on land and contamination of coastal zones.
Considering the entire range of environmental signatures, it is clear that the global, large and rapid scale of change related to the mid-20th century is the most obvious level to consider as the start of the Anthropocene Epoch.
- Framing Concepts in Environmental Science