Sep 10, 2016 | By George Gantz
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.