Humans really are unique in both good and bad ways. The mixture of our curiosity, intelligence, impatience, and fallibility means that we have now entered the Anthropocene, Earth’s newest geological epoch that began the moment plutonium debris from nuclear weapons began blanketing the globe.
This atomic marker is just one of many. Lest we forget that we have the power to physically change the make-up of the planet itself – whether we mean to or not. It’s long been known that new geological formations – mixtures of plastic and natural rock – are appearing as a result of human activity, but a new review highlights that we’ve also crafted hundreds of man-made minerals too.
As reported by the journal American Mineralogist, scientists have agreed that, from ancient crafting to modern mining practices, our actions have resulted in the birth of at least 208 minerals.
The majority were formed accidentally during mining activities, particularly those involving fluid injection, radioactive material seepage, or combustion. Some were found growing naturally on ancient lead, tin, and bronze artifacts, and a handful were discovered at prehistoric sites used for sacrificial burning.
Most of Earth’s minerals came about during the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) that took place around 2.2 billion years ago, when microbial life used photosynthesis to saturate the atmosphere with oxygen.
The international team of authors behind this study, including those from the Universities of Arizona and Maine, conclude that humanity has done more to diversify this mineral horde than any other event since the GOE.
The International Mineral Association (IMA) currently lists 5,225 official minerals, including these new ones, which means humanity is responsible for 4 percent of all mineral types found on Earth in some form or another.
“Within that collection are 208 minerals produced directly or indirectly by human activities, mostly since the mid-1700s, and we believe that others continue to be formed at that same relatively blazing pace,” Dr Robert Hazen, a renowned mineralogist at Washington’s Carnegie Institution for Science, said in a statement. “To imagine 250 years relative to 2 billion years, that's the difference between the blink of an eye (one-third of a second) and one month.”
Image in text: Devilline, a mining-generated mineral. Rob Lavinsky/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0
Mineral, by the way, is loosely defined as a “naturally occurring solid that has been formed by a geological process,” either on Earth or extraterrestrials. Put one or multiple mineral types together, and you’ve got a rock – that’s the long and short of it.
As this new review highlights, however, the word “naturally” in this case has lost some of its former meaning. With new minerals, you get new rock types, and with new rocks types, you get a whole new Planet Earth.
Plenty of substances synthesized by humans through scientific endeavors – including new metals and dozens of new types of elemental carbon – have found their way into the rock cycle and are now creating what are essentially “mutant” minerals that are otherwise growing through natural processes.
These minerals are additional markers confirming humanity has forged its own geological epoch. Although there are plenty to choose from, our favorite has to be the alien-looking Devilline, an ultra-blue sulfate mineral found deep within certain mines. It’s named after the French chemist wunderkind Henri Deville.
Another winner is the innocuous, salt-like Calclacite, a mineral that amusingly forms on the inside of old cabinets in archaeological museums as ancient objects and soft wood interact. This so-called “efflorescence” is so rare that it’s the only member in its rather bizarre mineral category.
Image in text: Fayalite, a mineral that sometimes appeared at prehistoric sacrificial burning sites. Fred Kruijen/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0