Environment

Humans Have Caused Earth To Enter A New Geological Epoch

January 8, 2016 | by Josh L Davis

Photo credit: Humans have dramatically altered the environment, even in regions we consider "untouched."

Another layer has been added to the debate over whether or not we have ushered in a new geological age, one defined by the activities of mankind and which will leave evidence of our actions in the sediments and rocks for millions of years to come. An international scientific panel has decided that there is little doubt that we have now entered the Anthropocene. Based on the latest data, the review of the evidence shows that we have made sufficient changes to Earth’s systems that it warrants the new classification.

These changes include hundreds of tonnes of plastics being churned out every year, the boom in concrete for buildings and construction, the vast amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen being added to the world’s soils, and the ever-increasing amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere.

In addition to the changes in the chemistry and composition of the sediment and atmosphere, the rate at which the world is losing wildlife will also be recorded in the fossil record. Many experts agree that we have now entered a sixth great extinction, with species being lost at a rate up to 100 times higher than would be if humans weren’t around.

Over half of all concrete has been produced within just the last 20 years, and still more is being made. leungchopan/Shutterstock

One of the biggest alterations to the planet, and one which will be clearly visible in the geological record to anyone who cares to look in hundreds of millennia to come, is the fallout out from the thermonuclear bomb tests during the mid-century. These vastly changed the amount of carbon-14 present in the atmosphere – and subsequently the oceans – as well as increasing the amount of what is ordinarily rare plutonium-293.

The record has even been preserved in glacial ice covering Greenland, along with the particulates from the extensive burning of fuels.

Many species, such as Sumatran orangutans, are being pushed closer and closer to extinction due to human impacts. Denys Kutsevalov/Shutterstock

The review, published in Science, is not a full conclusion or final statement, but more of an interim report. There are many aspects of declaring a new epoch that still have to be ironed out and one of these is when exactly the Anthropocene started.

Some argue that it should be when mankind first started farming and deforestation began on a large scale, others when the industrial revolution kicked off in the 1800s. But the majority of the panel think that it’s more likely to be during the “Great Acceleration” of the mid-20th century, when the production of plastics and concrete ramped up, and the nuclear bombs were exploded. 

Regardless of when it started, it looks like we've managed to alter our environment to such a massive extent that we can now truly say that we've created a new geological epoch, one defined by the dramatic loss of species, the manufacturing of plastics, and the use of nuclear weapons. 

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