We humans could soon have our own epoch. We could join epochs named for ice ages and tropical periods when major families of plants, birds and animals appeared or disappeared such as dinosaurs, whales and grasses. This newly proposed Epoch even has a name – the Anthropocene, the human epoch.
We have of course brought this on ourselves. Some argue that the Human Epoch should begin around the time we figured out how to farm because of the impact of agriculture on natural diversity, ecosystems and species extinction. Others claim more recent human developments should mark the start of the Anthropocene Epoch like the Industrial Revolution because it brought on shifts in atmospheric conditions on a global scale.
No matter what human development marks the beginning of this new Epoch, it’s a startling way to think about the human impact on the Earth. Sure, the evidence of our impact on the Earth is in the news all the time, but we don’t tend to think of our human footprint on such a broad and permanent scale. We’re talking an Epoch in the Geological Time Scale named for activity, the large proportion of which spans only a few generations.
Ecologist Eugene Stoermer and Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen both seem to lay claim to coining the term Anthropocene, but together in 2000 they published an article in the Global Change Newsletter on the idea simply called “The Anthropocene.” Since then, others have taken up the idea.
In the February 2008 edition of GSA Today published by the Geological Society of America, 21 British scientists supported the Stroermer/Crutzen proposal to add an Epoch to Earth’s history and presented it to the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London. They wrote, “From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the present day, global human population has climbed rapidly from under a billion to its current 6.5 billion, and it continues to rise. The exploitation of coal, oil, and gas in particular has enabled planet-wide industrialization, construction, and mass transport, the ensuing changes encompassing a wide variety of phenomena.”
According to the scientists, those phenomena include the usual suspects like global warming and species extinction, but there are surprises in the list too. Of course, increases in greenhouse gasses head the list because that change will lead to sharp and sustained global temperature increases and therefore to major changes planet-wide. Dramatic increases in erosion and sedimentation from agriculture and river damming far exceed natural processes. We’re driving other creatures to extinction on a massive scale, most notably on the coral reefs as we warm the oceans. This change will be magnified because we have so thoroughly isolated and compromised large ecosystems, species won’t be able to migrate as the Earth’s temperature increases. In other words, there will be fewer escape routes than there were at the last ice age, for example. Add to rising sea levels changes in ocean temperature and acidity levels and you’ve got yourself a period of change in the Earth’s history that is large enough, widespread enough and permanent enough to qualify as an Epoch.
The scientists claim that these changes suggest “we have entered a distinctive phase of Earth’s evolution that satisfies geologists’ criteria for its recognition as a distinctive stratigraphic unit, to which the name Anthropocene has already been informally given.” But they go further, claiming that human impacts may be so extreme, they may mark the end of the whole Quarternary Period of the last 2.5 million years.
Of course, it’s the human need in us to characterize, categorize and name that drives us to examine ourselves and our lot in this way. It could be argued that naming a whole geological time division after ourselves is just another example of the human-centric perspective that colours all our observations. After all, we could be wiped out by a super-efficient bacteria or an asteroid strike or a large volcanic explosion or of course by our own short sightedness. The Earth would simply move on without us.
Possibly, but the evidence that we’ve changed the planet for good really does seem overwhelming and it is right in front of us. Most of us live in cities that literally cover whole coastal plains, valleys and plateaus. Many of us drive our cars on highways where forests once grew. Much of the food in our cupboards was grown on farms that replaced once massive and diverse grasslands and forests. We’ve dammed the Earth’s major rivers and a lot of smaller ones for electricity. The list of planetary changes we’ve brought about is long. I say let’s go for it. Come on Geological Society of London, let’s make it official. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s name what we’ve done and deal with the resulting feelings of guilt and hopelessness by approaching our future on this planet differently than we’ve approached the past. Welcome to the Anthropocene Epoch.
Paul Crutzen by U. Dettmar
Geological Time Scale @ www.deadsetfreestuff.com
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