Anthropocene: The Human-Created Epoch
It took from the dawn of time until 1820 for the human population to reach one billion. Less than two centuries later, the number has reached 7.7 billion and the count is still going up. This massive growth is having a profound impact on our planet.
The Holocene Epoch May be Past
The longest geologic time periods are called “eons,” which last half a billion years or more. Within eons are “eras” that last several hundred million years. Eras, in turn are divided into “periods,” “epochs,” and “ages.”
The current geological time period is the Holocene epoch; it has been a gentle spell in Earth’s history that began when the last Ice Age retreated about 10,000 years ago.
As explained by The Economist, it is “part of the Quaternary period, a time distinguished by regular shifts into and out of ice ages. The Quaternary forms part of the 65m-year Cenozoic era, distinguished by the opening of the North Atlantic, the rise of the Himalayas, and the widespread presence of mammals and flowering plants.”
But, some scientists say we have passed out of the Holocene epoch; among them are Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams from the University of Leicester, England, Department of Geology. ScienceDaily (March 2010) writes that these and other scientists “propose that, in just two centuries, humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes to our world that we actually might be ushering in a new geological time interval, and altering the planet for millions of years.”
Dramatic Changes in a Few Decades
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Anna Maria Tremonti noted (The Current, September 2011) that, “Our planet is 4.5 billion years old but in just the past 200 years or so we have dramatically altered the face of the Earth; sprawling cities, vast forests replaced with pavement and concrete, massive dams, melting ice caps and glaciers, tops blown off mountains to get at the coal underneath.”
Environmental activist Bill McKibben told the program that, “the ocean is 30 percent more acid than it was 40 years ago. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cold the atmosphere is about four percent wetter than it was 40 years ago; an astonishingly large change …”
And, while the human population is exploding that of other species is going into rapid and unprecedented decline, with scientists saying that extinctions are taking place at between ten and one hundred times the natural rate.
Welcome to the Anthropocene Age
About 15 years ago, the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen (he won the Nobel Prize for his work on the ozone layer) was attending a scientific conference at which the chair kept referring to the Holocene epoch.
According to an article in National Geographic, Mr. Crutzen recalled blurting out “ ‘Let’s stop it. We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.’ Well, it was quiet in the room for a while.”
The word is a creation from “anthropology,” that is, having to do with humans, and “cene” from an Ancient Greek word meaning new that is sometimes tacked onto words describing geological times.
And that article in The Economist notes that, “As Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, points out, embracing the Anthropocene as an idea means … treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force.”
“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.”
Professor Chris Rapley, a climate scientist
at University College, London.
Scientists Will Decide if New Epoch Has Started
At first, Mr. Crutzen’s “The Recent Age of Man” was not taken seriously, but the word Anthropocene is now turning up in scientific journals without quotation marks around it.
The usual method of determining the beginning and end of a geological epoch is through examination of sedimentary layers in rocks. But, the Anthropocene age is so new that no sedimentary evidence in the form of rocks will appear for thousands of years. However, science writer Diane Ackerman says the fossil record left behind by humans will be different. She told the CBC that “What will mainly remain from our era will be our ‘technofossils,’ aluminum cans, plastic …”
The Anthropocene topic came up at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town in 2016. Attendees identified the year 1950 as the date on which the Anthropocene began; that’s the date when the first traces of radioactive elements appear in the fossil record after atomic bombs were exploded.
The experts also noted the rapid rise of sea levels associated with high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. And, here’s a curiosity; future geologists will discover a worldwide layer of bones that followed the domestication of chickens.
The International Commission on Stratigraphy is the professional organization that has the job of defining Earth’s time scale. It will decide whether or not the Anthropocene era has begun.
Climate scientist Will Steffen suggests one of two dates be chosen to mark the start of the Anthropocene epoch; either the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, or the atomic age of the 1950s.
New population projections suggest there could be 11 billion humans on the planet by 2100; that’s 2.3 billion more than today’s number. It’s also two billion more than most forecasts, which say the population increase will level off by the middle of this century. In a paper published in Science (September 2014), experts used new United Nations numbers to arrive at their conclusions.
In the history of Earth there have been five mass extinctions of life forms.
According to The New York Times (September 2014) “Since 1751, a mere 90 corporations, primarily oil and coal companies, have generated two-thirds of humanity’s CO2 emissions.”
“Humans have been on the planet for about 200,000 years, but … all of the wonders that we associate with everyday life really came about in the last 200 years. And, in the last 20 years the human adventure has been barrelling ahead at a mind-bending pace.”
Diane Ackerman, author of “The Human Age.”
- “The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Influenced Age.” Damian Carrington, The Guardian, August 29, 2016.
- “Enter the Anthropocene - Age of Man.” Elizabeth Kolbert, National Geographic, March 2011.
- “A Man-Made World.” The Economist, May 26, 2011.
- “Dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch? Earth Has Entered New Age of Geological Time, Experts Say.” ScienceDaily, March 26, 2010.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Rupert Taylor