Sep 10, 2016 | By

It’s Almost Official – The Anthropocene Epoch Has Begun

On August 29th, the Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ (AWG) reported its summary of evidence and provisional recommendations to the 35th International Geological Congress. They conclude that this new epoch has replaced the Holocene (which started approximately 12,000 years ago), and is characterized by the dominant influence of human activity on the earth’s geology and climate.


As reported in a release from the Unversity of Leicester, the report finds that “Changes to the Earth System that characterize the potential Anthropocene Epoch include marked acceleration to rates of erosion and sedimentation, large-scale chemical perturbations to the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements, the inception of significant change to global climate and sea level, and biotic changes such as unprecedented levels of species invasions across the Earth.  Many of these changes are geologically long-lasting, and some are effectively irreversible. These and related processes have left an array of signals in recent strata, including plastic, aluminium and concrete particles, artificial radionuclides, changes to carbon and nitrogen isotope patterns, fly ash particles, and a variety of fossilizable biological remains. Many of these signals will leave a permanent record in the Earth’s strata.”

According to the Economist (9-3-16, page 69), the leading candidate for the “golden spike” used to identify the start of the epoch is 1964 – the high point of nuclear testing, which resulted in worldwide depositions of plutonium in the geological record.

The recommendation will need to proceed through several levels of review and approval before being adopted formally by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).

Interestingly, in my essay The Tip of The Spear, I speculated that we may find that we are already, in the 21st century, entering a new epoch. While the Anthropocene of the late 20th and early 21st century is characterized by the dominant global impacts of human activity, it is still the case that the negative impacts were mostly inadvertent and largely unintentional. With technologies now in play in fields of artificial intelligence, genetic editing, space exploration and geo-engineering we are entering a period when human global impacts will be intentional and purposeful. In addition, we now know things about global climate change, ecological disruption and other side effects of 19th and 20th century technologies that we did not know before. The moral implications of the decisions that are leading us forward are, I would argue, therefore of a higher order than our decisions of the past. The question is – will humanity do any better with these decisions than we did making decisions in the past?

I have hope that we can.

3 Responses to “It’s Almost Official – The Anthropocene Epoch Has Begun”

  1. admin says:

    POSTSCRIPT: This text was included in the email newsletter announcing this article:

    By the way, I got a lesson in social media when I posted the Anthropocene article to an open online forum (Disqus). Within hours the discussion thread was swamped with vitriol and personal attacks from “trolls” aggressively confronting ANY suggestion that climate change could be influenced by human activity – almost 200 comments in 24 hours! What do you think?

  2. JG Collins says:

    Very odd. Most skeptics I know (90% of them or more) believe that human activity can have a small effect on climate. Global Warming theory is paper thin, so thin that vitriol is hardly warranted. According to the AGW hypothesis, there should be a hot spot in the tropical troposphere. It’s not there. According to AGW “science,” some fifty-odd computer models can predict or (weasel word) “project” the amount of future warming. However, these models have failed, overestimating actual warming by a large margin across the board. There’s a lot more, but I’ll spare you the full information*.

    If the AGW hypothesis were solid science, manipulation of the historic temperature records should be unnecessary. But it’s happening, and not just in a few cases; data fudging is widespread in ‘Climate Science,’ as is the use of demonstrably faulty statistical methods.

    It’s clear that the science is not “settled.” It’s also clear that AGW is not science, per se. Ottmar Edenhofer, a UN official, stated several years ago that the objective of AGW theory was not new science, but wealth redistribution. It’s politics.

    * The most widely-consulted website covering AGW is, run by a former AMS certified TV meteorologist with 25 years on the air. I suggest following the posts there for better information.

    FYI: I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. I scored 800 on the natural science section of the GRE and 790 on the engineering exam. In addition to engineering, including general heat transfer and radiation into gases, I’ve studied astronomy, astrophysics, and statistics. I’ve also constructed computer models of complex systems.

    • George Gantz says:

      Thanks for the comment. While I am generally skeptical and agree that a scientific “consensus” can be quite wrong (e.g.: Busting Science Myths), in this case I give credence to the geologists on the AWG. One of the difficulties with climate change is that the climate is a very large, very dynamic system with very many interactions and feedback loops. Accurate modeling is difficult, perhaps impossible. Additionally, the immense reams of data including historical records, even if they were error-free, can be easily cherry-picked to find apparent trends in support of any given position. The statistics of large data sets is quite interesting – in addition to correct causal correlations, the data set will also yield, if interrogated enough, statistical outliers that can be used to support virtually any claim. That means that determined skeptics can always find counter-examples. This raises some interesting philosophical questions that I discuss in Uncertainty – More Data is Not Enough. Our predispositions (including skeptical ones) influence how we “lean into” the data and do change conclusions.

      I have another simple but compelling reason for leaning in favor of the geologists’ consensus – something I learned about four decades ago. If you agree that atmospheric carbon has an influence on climate, then note the following: it took roughly 600 million years for that carbon to be extracted from the atmosphere and deposited in what are now the world’s geologic hydrocarbon deposits. That change in atmospheric climate, according to the geologic record, significantly changed the chemistry of the climate and the trajectory of biological life. We have been extracting and burning those deposits for some centuries – and in the 20th century the rate at which carbon has been returned to the atmosphere would suggest we will run out in something like 600 years. (All of these numbers are very approximate, but they make the point.) That means we are returning carbon to the atmosphere approximately one million times faster than it was removed. As a student of complex dynamic systems, I concluded decades ago that this is a serious destabilizing factor – even if we do NOT know the magnitude, direction or specifics of the changes that will occur as a result – our models and analyses could all be wrong – change will occur, and it is likely to be dramatic (in a geological sense).

      There is another interesting feature of the AWG work. The leading candidate for a marker of when the anthropocene began is 1964, the peak of atmospheric nuclear testing. This has nothing to do with climate change, but is easy to spot in the geologic record because of the plutonium that was deposited worldwide (something otherwise extremely rare). This would seem to be a very significant human influence on the geological record — and it is not climate change…

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