The Incessant Alteration of Geology by Humans


Geological layers in northern Arizona’s Paria Canyon.
Pic courtesy: Getty Images

The popular and contemporary notion about environmental science is that our natural world has been ravaged by humans only after the dawn of industrial revolution (in 18th century) or may be after Age of discovery (in 15th century). But scientific researches have repeatedly proven that human existence has always created considerable impact on environment and geological process. The perspective of humans living in pitch-perfect harmony with the environment is a bit romanticized view. Our cosmopolitan species have been altering land masses much before the confluence of European navigators who set off to spread their culture and diseases to other continents. Many anthropologists, archaeologists, and environmentalists agree its false hope to think we can assuage our species to go back to natural environment. They say we are too late and too sophisticated to do that. How late? May be at least 11,000 years late.

The evidence of human impact on their immediate environment is available right from Stone Age when the civilization of aboriginal Polynesians wiped out animal and bird species (in the plains of North America and New Zealand). Furthermore, the human influence wasn’t restricted to destruction of species since we have even altered entire ecosystems tens of thousands of years ago. Archaeologist and executive director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, Mr. Jon Erlandson has said, “Humans have literally impacted everything from mammoths to microbes. Most people have no idea how heavily we’ve altered things — and for how long”. He continues that it’s easy to get swayed by the idea that ancient humans aren’t smart enough or tech-savvy to modify local environments. But the piling up of scientific evidence proves that’s not necessarily the case.

From exploitation of fire to producing bow and arrow to establishing vast human colonies and to the rapid agricultural advancements, the things which made our survival easier had considerably impacted the environment. Researchers note that the very early extinction created by humans happened between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. Our human ancestors are cited as the reason for the extinction of Tasmanian mega-fauna (large or giant animal species). The farming and domesticated animals increased our footprints in the environment. Farming really brought big implications on nature and the seafaring communities like ancient Polynesians ransacked many island ecosystems. Fortunately, none of the geological impacts brought upon by early humans, didn’t create a wholly negative effect on the environment.

Alberta Tar Sands. World’s third-largest proven crude oil reserve. The place was once a forest. photo by Garth Lenz

A recent study in Israel’s Tel Aviv University, led by Professor Shmuel Marco has uncovered hard evidence on earliest known man-made impact on geological processes. The samples retrieved from Dead Sea (through Drilling project which required digging of 1,500 foot deep drill in the Dead Sea basin) led to discovery of particular kind of erosion which is too dramatic to be compatible with tectonic or climate changes. The erosion that occurred approximately 11,500 years ago is alleged to have happened during Neolithic Revolution when humans settled in large-scales, replacing natural vegetation with farming crops. The ensued deforestation, domestication of animals, and grazing is believed to have caused such intensified erosion. Dead Sea basin is considered as natural lab to apprehend how the ranges of sedimentation rates are related to tectonic shifts, climate changes and human impact. The study published in the journal Global and Planetary Change would further help us understand the unceasing man-made impact on nature.

While other animal species were specially equipped to survive in particular environment, mankind wasn’t bestowed with such specialties. These early impacts brought by humans has not only led to single-minded destruction, but also sometimes served as positive catalyst for evolution. Our species’ survival has changed the nature and not very often in alarming proportions. The acceleration of technological innovation after the industrial revolution, however, threatened the greenhouses gases composition. From the Pacific rats which traveled with European voyagers spreading plagues amidst ancient communities to the modern transportation and trade systems, we are radically altering the environment which is unlike the step-wise development our species did tens of thousands of years ago. The notion of economical ‘progression’ has taken the impact on geological process to ludicrous levels. Our impacts will still serve as catalyst for evolution. But what kind of evolution will it be? May be one where nature pays back all the havoc we wreaked on it. More than the pipe dreams to live in pristine environment we need a pragmatic collective will to solve geological quandaries.


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