It’s the dawn of a new age. Or the idea of one, at least.
A consortium of international scientists, known as the Anthropocene Working Group, is arguing that we no longer occupy the Holocene epoch, which began roughly 11,700 year ago and persists to today. Rather, humanity’s effects on the global environment have rung in a new age: the Anthropocene epoch.
It’s an age defined by anthropogenic changes, including the rapid growth of novel materials, such as elemental aluminum, concrete, and plastics that leave behind “technofossils;” a marked rise in the human population and industrialization in the mid-20th century, which the authors describe as the “Great Acceleration;” and the spread of radioactive materials globally due to thermonuclear nuclear weapons tests, among other effects.
Biological changes due to humans are occurring too. Extinction has become more pronounced since 1500, only increasing further in the 19th century and later, the authors write. Additionally, human farming and fishing have brought about “transglobal species invasions…permanently reconfiguring Earth’s biological trajectory.”
Colin Waters, a British Geological Survey scientist and the group secretary, told BBC News that the Anthropocene Working Group consists of 37 members. The Science piece is an update on the group’s current investigations.
“Humans are altering the planet, including long-term global geological processes, at an increasing rate,” the authors write. “Any formal recognition of an Anthropocene epoch in the geological time scale hinges on whether humans have changed the Earth system sufficiently to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice that is distinct from that of the Holocene epoch.”
Whether our current age receives a new epoch name is up to the International Commission on Stratigraphy. The commission’s primary objective is to define global units used on the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, which inform the time units of the International Geologic Time Scale.
The BBC reports that sample boreholes will be needed to demonstrate whether the mid-20th century can be defined as the start date of a new epoch. “These could include ocean or lake sediments containing markers of pollution, such as the soot particles from fossil fuel burning,” the media outlet reports. “Because these examples would need to reflect a global and not just a local footprint of human activity, the boreholes could take a number of years to collect.”
Despite the recent publication, the idea of a new human epoch is not new. The term Anthropocene was originally coined by Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000. It’s become a popular scientific term.