Scientists Search for Anthropocene “Spike”

Anthropocene Epoch Recommended by Geologists

The idea that we are now living in such a changed world as a result of the actions of our species, that a new geological epoch should be declared, is one step closer to reality.  A report from leading geologists presented at the 35th International Geological Congress held in Cape Town (South Africa), has recommended that the Anthropocene Epoch be added to the official geological history of Earth.  The decision to end the current epoch (the Holocene) and introduce a new geological time segment has not been finalised yet, more work needs to be done, specifically to decide at what point in time does the Holocene end and the new epoch, the Anthropocene (the age of humans), begin.

The Anthropocene Work Group (AWG)

A panel of experts has been put together to explore the possibility of creating a new epoch, the thirty-five members of the Anthropocene Work Group (AWG), presented their initial findings at the International Geological Congress and now work has started to identify the best point in time for the Holocene to end and the Anthropocene to start.  Twenty-eight of the panellists believe that the Anthropocene should be recorded as having started sometime in the 1950’s, the decade identified as being the start of intense human activity that increased the impact of our species.

Identifying a Suitable Marker in Time

The search is on to find a “golden spike”, to identify a suitable marker in the environment that epitomises the start of a new phase in our planet’s history.  Some of the panel members have argued that July 16th 1945 could be that marker.   On that day, the first test of a nuclear bomb took place in New Mexico (code name Trinity).  Plutonium fallout from nuclear bombs will be present in sediments laid down at the time and over thousands of years the sediments will eventually form strata and the layers with unnaturally high levels of plutonium could provide the long-term geological evidence to indicate the start of a new and distinct unit of deep time.  However, other geologists think that rocks that contain large amounts of plastic compounds would make a better starting point for the Anthropocene.

Scientists Aim to Pinpoint in Strata the Starting Point for the Anthropocene Epoch

Llanwit Major Jurassic Cliffs

Preserving our planet’s geological history.

Picture Credit: UK Fossils Network

Colin Waters (British Geological Survey), the secretary of the AWG, presented the team’s initial findings at the Congress he explained:

“This is an update on where we are in our discussions, we’ve got to a point where we’ve listed what we think the Anthropocene means to us as a working group.  The majority of us think that it is real, that there is something happening, that there are clearly signals in the environment that are recognisable and make the Anthropocene a distinct unit and the majority of us think it would be justified to formally recognise it.”

Atomic Testing and the Radioactive Particles Produced Could Provide a Marker in Deep Time

An atomic bomb and its mushroom cloud.

Scientists propose that atom bomb tests in the 1950’s could represent the start of a new geological epoch.

A Changing World

Our planet has gone through huge changes since the time of its formation some 4.58 billion years ago.  Geologists have broken down this immense period of time into units, with each component of the official timeline of our planet marked by distinct boundaries, preserved in the rocks.  This timeline of our Earth’s history is referred to as the Chronostratigraphic Chart and any changes made to it need to be agreed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) and then be further ratified by the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).  The Anthropocene Working Group hope to present their findings within two years so that by 2019, a new geological epoch could be established.

The last time there was a major revision of the Chronostratigraphic Chart was in 2009, when, in a controversial move, scientists agreed to revise the date of the Quaternary Period: The Quaternary Just Gained 800,000 years.

Although there is still debate as to the impact of our species on climate, most scientists and academics agree that we are entering a new phase of climate change.  Our world is getting warmer, the implications for a rapid and dramatic rise in global temperatures are frightening, hence the limits on temperature increases agreed at the recent Paris Conference (2015).  Creating a new geological epoch may seem like an exercise in semantics for some, but in reality, it would be an affirmation that our species H. sapiens is having such a profound effect on the planet that dramatic changes with far reaching consequences are now beginning to occur.  A new marker in the Chronostratigraphic Chart might help to drive change, providing a definitive rallying point for mankind to act collectively to put in place measures to help limit the impact we are having on the planet.

A related article on the global context of climate change: COP 21 – The Impact of Global Climate Change

Our Species Is Having a Dramatic Impact on the Planet

Plastic pollution, the impact of mankind on the environment

Non-biodegradable plastics and other debris on a beach.

A study that shows climate change between the Pliocene and Pleistocene may help our understanding of current climate change issues: Pliocene/Pleistocene Climate Studies Supports Current Climate Change Models.

The Impact of Ice Age Mammals (mega-fauna) on the start of the Holocene: Calls for the Start of the Holocene Epoch to be Altered.

Dr. Waters explained that in the past, climate change had taken place due to natural oscillations within our Earth’s ecosystems and environments, however: “in the last Century we have had such a huge impact that we’re actually taking the planet away from that natural oscillation and changing the trend for global temperatures from what should have been a cooling trend to a warming trend.”

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