What is Anthropocene?
This is a proposed unit of geological time coined to describe the present geological age in which the earth’s surface has changed greatly due to human influence
The increasing human activities since the Industrial Revolution is changing the geological system of the Holocene Epoch, which started after the last ice age.
Source: Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) under the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS)
The term Anthropocene started with the concept that humans have brought changes to the planet’s climate and ecosystem significant enough to change the geological time, as a meteorite has done.
Let’s think back to Middle School Science class. We learned that geologic time scale is determined by geologic events or extinction of certain species. Do you also remember learning about the three eras that began after each mass extinction - Paleozoic Era, Mesozoic Era, and Cenozoic Era?
▲ The Paleozoic Era began 540 million years ago when traces of invertebrates such as trilobites first appeared
▲ The Mesozoic Era began 252 million years ago when reptiles flourished
▲ The Cenozoic Era began 66 million years ago when mammals came about
Each era is divided into periods, which is subdivided into epochs. Which time scale are we living in right now? The answer is – take a deep breath – the Meghalayan Age of the Holocene Epoch of the Quarternary Period of the Cenozoic Era. The Holocene epoch began 11,700 years ago with the ending of the last ice age and continues until the present day. However, that may change and we may be heading into a new epoch as human beings have made some fatal changes to the Earth.
(the New York TImes)
Anthropocene and Climate Change
Eugene F. Stoermer first coined the term Anthropocene in the early 1980s to explain the increasing effect of human activities on the planet earth. He wanted to point out that the earth’s environment was destroyed in just 200 years due to climate change after 200,000 years of no-change since homo sapiens appeared on this earth.
And what caused this change is not plate movements or meteorite collisions, but human actions. The new Anthropocene Epoch sends a warning that is not to be taken lightly.
Anthropocene may soon become official
The proposal to give a new name to the has not been officially accepted. However, discussions on Anthropocene has been on the rise, and there is a recent movement to officially ratify the term as an Epoch within the geologic time scale.
According to a New York Times article published on December 17, 2022, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) has entered the internal voting stage to determine the details of ratification such as the starting point of the new time scale.
*AWG is an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to the study of the Anthropocene. It was established as a constituent body of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) under the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).
In fact, researchers across scientific disciplines have agreed that the concept of Anthropocene should be defined, but there has been dispute about setting the standard of the time scale.
The AWG, composed of 34 experts from across the world, is in the process of examining the candidate locations to confirm that the Earth has entered a new geological time and deciding the specific time scale.
Nine locations have been selected to study the sedimentary layers, which include Japan’s Beppuman in Kyushu, Lake Crawford in Ontario, Canada, and the Antarctic Peninsula Glacier among others.
It is expected that the official ratification of the term Anthropocene will be decided by the spring time this year when all internal voting is completed.
The NYT article added that Anthropocene will be officially recognized as a geologic time only with more than 60% of the vote from each of the three committees, and ratification may be difficult for years if there is a lot of opposition.
Who coined the term Anthropocene?
Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen (1933-2021) makes proposal to name the present time as Anthropocene, Max Planck Society
The word Anthropocene was popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen who won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work in studying the atmospheric ozone.
In February 2000, Crutzen discovered that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and nitrogen content in the soil were outside the Holocene range while studying the global system changes as a member of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP).
Then with Eugene Stoermer he introduced the idea of Anthropocene in the newsletter for the IGBP. With firm belief that the cause for change was human activities, he proposed calling the current geological time with the new term, determined to make known that human behavior has brought drastic changes to the Earth’s system.
“Considering these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “Anthropocene” for the current geological epoch.
[...] Without major catastrophes like an enormous volcanic eruption, an unexpected epidemic, a large-scale nuclear war, an asteroid impact, a new ice age, or continued plundering of Earth’s resources by partially still primitive technology mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come.
To develop a world-wide accepted strategy leading to sustainability of ecosystems against human induced stresses will be one of the great future tasks of mankind, requiring intensive research efforts and wise application of the knowledge thus acquired in the noosphere, better known as knowledge or information society.”
Source: Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (May 2000), pp. 17-18
Since Crutzen’s proposal, the term Anthropocene has been widely used as a metaphor to capture the effects of accelerating climate change and in seeking out the cause of the crisis in human activities.
When did Anthropocene start?
We are living in a time of disasters caused by abnormal climate changes, from floods and droughts to wildfires and heat waves that have devastated different parts of the world.
These strange phenomena we experience provides evidence that the geological time has changed. And climate change is accepted as the major evidence of the arrival of a new geologic time that we call the Anthropocene.
There are several events suggested for determining the beginning of the Anthropocene; the Industrial Revolution, development of nuclear weapons, change in eating habits, etc. Let us introduce the 4 main proposals.
Development of Agriculture
One group of experts suggest that Anthropocene began with the development of agriculture. They argue that agriculture led to changes in vegetation, which then led to increased number of extinct organisms and ultimately changes in the Earth’s circulation process.
Some suggest that the Industrial Revolution marks the beginning of the Anthropocene, mainly because the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere saw a steep rise during this period.
One point of view is that the Anthropocene started with the first nuclear testing. Some even argue that it began on July 16, 1945, on the day of the first nuclear test in Alamogodo, New Mexico.
Another opinion is that Anthropocene began as the world’s population began to explode in the 1950s.
In 2019, the AWG has voted to agree the starting point of the Anthropocene as “mid-20th century.” Nature magazine had reported at the time that mid-20th century was the time when the first nuclear explosion spread radioactive residues on geology and glaciers around the world while rapid population growth accelerated other human activities such as industrial production and pesticide use.
On the other hand, some point out that it is too early to redefine the current time as a new epoch because only less than a century has passed since mid-20th century.
Holocene was ratified to have begun 11,650±699 years ago by the IUGS, and the duration of Anthropocene would be about one tenth of the error range, or less than a moment’s time in geological time scale.
Lessons learned from the new Epoch
Whether the AWG makes it official or not, we will continue to talk about Anthropocene. This bizarre term will raise alarm to the various crises facing humans, including climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, new types of diseases, etc. It may be a sign telling us to rethink about the relationship we have built with the planet Earth.
An American environmental scientist Erle C. Ellis said, “Anthropocene is a new narrative and a bold new scientific paradigm that connects humans and nature.” He further emphasized that this new term equals a “crisis” for humanity that calls for practical actions.
This new epoch is the time to think back on how much we have been taking from our planet. Letting go of our selfish needs and working to coexist with what Mother Earth is providing us is one step toward healing the wounds we have caused on our planet.