A Brief Introduction to Anthropocene

Pic courtesy: http://www.anthropocene.info/

Pic courtesy: http://www.anthropocene.info/

The concept of Anthropocene (meaning ‘Age of Humans’) must be the single ‘big story’ to be reported across the world (but usually it isn’t). ‘Anthropocene’, though not a part of the official scientific lexicon, it is continuing to gain great acceptance among scientists. Anthropocene is the alleged new division in the geological time scale, which is defined by the immense changes in nature and in the functioning of Earth system by human activity. Did the humans unleash the power of their mind to such an extent, so as to leave a big imprint on the geological record? Did the human race’ impact broke off the 12,000 year (approx.) geological epoch known as ‘Holocene’? Did we in the alleged ‘Anthropocene’ left/leaving (continue to leave) a big, evident mark in sediments worldwide? ‘Yes’, points the conclusion derived by Anthropocene Working Group, consisting of 35 scientists and researchers, working for the past seven years to submit a formal span of this proposed new epoch or geologic time.

The word ‘Anthropocene’ is said to be proposed by Nobel chemistry laureate Paul Crutzen in 2002 (Crutzen shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of Ozone-depleting compounds aka ‘discovery of ozone hole’). While the conservatives think this term is a way to propose economy-strangling policy, the environmentalists cite the term as the need to rally against the rise in CO2 in our atmosphere. There are quite a few scientists who are skeptical about this new disciple of Earth-system science. Like the California State University professor Mr. Stanley Finney, many scientists feel that not enough time has elapsed to declare a new epoch. But, recognizing the ‘Anthropocene’ involves ample political play than just the scientific proof. Nevertheless, if we just concentrate on the scientific proof for voting Anthropocene into official existence, the group of 35 scientists must show or pick a ‘golden spike’ to the state the commencement of a transition.

Geological Time Scale

One of the golden spike, we are highly aware of is the event that led to demise of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The discovery of iridium on rock record of Earth’s surface in the 1970’s (iridium is rare on Earth and found mostly on our planet’s core) led to the discovery of the asteroid strike, which ended the dominance of those humongous creatures. Similar to the golden spike that ended the dinosaur species in the ‘Cretaceous epoch’, the scientists were in search for golden spike that must mark ‘Anthropocene’. When the ‘great acceleration’ began so as to say that ‘this particular, intensified transition made by humans led to a golden spike’?  The ‘what’ part of Anthropocene might have been coined in the early 2000’s, but now the debate goes on defining the ‘when’ and ‘how’ parts.

On August 29th at the International Geological Congress (held in Cape Town, South Africa) the group revealed its recommendations, although to submit a formal proposal, they must continue gathering multiple cores of sediment from around the planet to showcase if the rock records mark any sharp transitions. Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz (from the University of Leicester) who calls together the Anthropocene group has recently stated that, “We’ll go and get our hands dirty, beginning to look for sections that we can formally propose.” The working group, consisting of climate change scientists, geologists, archaeologists, and others pondered over multiple dates to fix the golden spike of ‘Anthropocene’ epoch. Some considered the early 17th century when Europeans colonized New World [trading new germs & diseases to the colony in exchange for new pollen to Europe] or the early 1800s, when the European industrial revolution led large-scale coal-burning and CO2 spike. But, majority of people in the working group propose that the golden spike for the Anthropocene comes around 1950s or late 1940s when the nuclear testing (causing the radioactive elements to be dispersed across Earth) and humans’ addiction to oil began. The ensued plastic pollution, high levels of nitrogen and phosphate in soil (due to use of artificial fertilizers), ash residue from high temperature combustion of oil and coal is expected to leave a lasting mark in the rock records of an alleged ‘golden spike’ in the ‘age of humans’. 

Some scientists have argued that the present geologic age Holocene is enough to describe human impact on earth. Whatever the debates and conclusion are going to be in the coming decades, it is important to know the term ‘Anthropocene’ and it is most important to relate this term with the persistent burning of fossil fuels and relentless industrialization.

Paul J Crutzen

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