An influential panel of scientists has voted in favor of officially recognizing that Earth has entered the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which our planet is defined by atomic weapons, industrial smogs, plastic trash, and carbon emissions.
Last week, 88 percent of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), a panel of 34 scientists and academics, voted in favor of making the Anthropocene a formally defined geological unit within the official Geological Time Scale. While the action isn’t yet set in stone – no pun intended – as it has to be considered by several more groups of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the vote marks an important milestone towards officially recognizing the new geological epoch.
Technically, we are still in the Holocene, an epoch that started around 11,700 years ago with the end of the last major glacial epoch, the Ice Age. However, the planet has undergone some monumental changes since then. An ever-rising number of scientists are now agreeing that these changes are so profound they need to be acknowledged as an entirely new epoch.
"It’s a pity we’re still officially living in an age called the Holocene. The Anthropocene – human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth – is already an undeniable reality. Evidence is mounting that the name change suggested by one of us more than 10 years ago is overdue," Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who first coined the term “Anthropocene,” wrote in 2011.
The Anthropocene has taken on a range of meanings, even with the highest ranks of the scientific community, so this decision isn’t likely to go totally unchallenged. Nevertheless, in its simplest terms, it describes how humans are significantly impacting the Earth's geology and ecosystems.
"Albeit clumsily, we are taking control of Nature’s realm, from climate to DNA. We humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth," Crutzen said.
The most in-your-face manifestation of this is anthropogenic climate change. The industrial activity of humans has pumped out so many greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, it has dramatically altered the composition of our atmosphere, strengthening the greenhouse effect and causing global warming.
However, the term also extends beyond the climate crisis. The planet’s surface geology is now sprinkled with a new array of artificial radionuclides following the thermonuclear bomb tests of the 20th century’s latter half. Our oceans are littered with the proliferation and global dispersion of many “new minerals,” most notably concrete, fly ash, and plastics.
We are also witnessing colossal changes to the Earth’s biology. For example, a recent report by the United Nations (UN) found that up to 1 million species could face extinction due to human influence.
One of the main points of the argument surrounding the Anthropocene is when it started. The most prominent position – agreed on by the majority of AWG member – says that it started around the mid-20th century; an era defined by a massive escalation of carbon emissions and the use of atomic weapons. On the other hand, some argue it started in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, as this era marked the first large-scale burning of coal, which culminated in the long-term rise of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Others go even further back, suggesting it began with the Columbian exchange, the irreversible exchange of species between Eurasia and the Americas from the 15th century onwards.
Whenever it started, scientists hope that officially recognizing this new reality will help the study of our planet, as well as increase awareness of humanity’s role in these Earth-shaking changes.