Scientists say it’s a new era: the Anthropocene

Researchers say the term — which means the human period — recognizes the
 extent of human-caused change to the planet over the last 60 years

When geologists sample sediment, they are increasingly finding evidence of human activity — from radioactive dust to bits of plastic and chunks of concrete. So scientists are now arguing it’s time to formally recognize a new epoch in Earth’s history, the Anthropocene.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Characterized by the mantra “better living through chemistry,” the time immediately following the Second World War was steeped in a euphoric state of consumption of mass-manufactured materials.

Now a new paper argues that this time should be formally recognized as the beginning of a new epoch by calling it the Anthropocene — or human period.

“This new paper is a major step before we provide evidence and recommendations to the gatekeepers of geological time, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, on whether the Anthropocene should be formally entered to the time scale as a new unit of Earth history beginning in the mid-20th century,” said Alexander Wolfe, adjunct professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and the lone Canadian co-author of the new study published in the journal Science.

Anthropocene is already informally used, not only by geologists and paleobiologists, but also anthropologists, archeologists, historians, and social scientists. But there’s no agreed-upon formal definition, said Wolfe.

“We hope that such a common definition will have ramifications well beyond the arcane rules of stratigraphy,” said Wolfe, including, for example, ecology, economics, policy, and the law of the sea.

The effort to formally recognize a new epoch has been driven by human-caused “wholesale” changes to the Earth’s surface layer, including radioactive dust from nuclear tests, and materials such as plastic, metals, and concrete.

Wolfe and the other authors of the paper — two dozen in all — reviewed the stratigraphic record of these so-called “anthropogenic markers” that have been found in sediment. The human-created materials were so common, they concluded the planet operates under fundamentally different boundary conditions than during the Holocene (the epoch that began about 12,000 years ago after the last major ice age).

The Anthropocene “is the first proposed geological boundary that will have been witnessed directly by advanced human societies,” said Wolfe.

“We are optimistic that this will raise awareness of the global character of human impacts on the Earth system and the way humans have and are changing the planet,” he said.

“How far can we or should we go in terms of modifying the planet, our only viable home?”

About the author



Stories from our other publications