Is the Earth entering a new geological epoch?

Anthropocene epoch? A new study offers more evidence that human impact on the Earth warrants a new geologic epoch ahead of a 2016 target date for a formal decision on the subject.

NASA/AP
A shrimp-like creature at a depth of 600 feet beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet managed to brighten up a gray polar day when NASA scientists were using a borehole camera. Boreholes are one way scientists will determine whether the earth has indeed entered a new epoch.

Scientists are adding evidence to a plan for acknowledging the modern human impact on the planet by declaring a new, man-made geologic epoch.

A working group of scientists published a report Thursday in advance of a September meeting for the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which set 2016 as the year to decide whether to declare the modern age the Anthropocene epoch.

The official naming of an Anthropocene epoch would define human impact on the earth in terms of atmosphere and soil composition, producing new polymers and metal types, and the movement and decline of animal species through agriculture, colonization, industrialization, and nuclear-weapons testing.

The movement is a nod to plans for addressing climate change, and Dr. Colin Waters, a study author and scientist for the British Geological Survey, told the Guardian's Adam Vaughan that an official epoch change would bring home the magnitude of the environmental changes to the public.

"What this paper does, and the Anthropocene concept, is say that’s part of a whole set of changes to not just the atmosphere, but the oceans, the ice – the glaciers that we’re using for this project might not be here in 10,000 years," Mr. Waters told the Guardian. “People are environmentally aware these days, but maybe the information is not available to them to show the scale of changes that are happening."

Phil Gibbard, the University of Cambridge geologist who set up the working group initially, told the Guardian the Anthropocene epoch might be more effective as a cultural concept than a scientific fact.

"We fully recognize the points [in the new study's research]: the data and science is there," Mr. Gibbard told the Guardian. “What we question is the philosophy, and usefulness."

Popularity for an idea that the Holocene "entirely recent" epoch is giving way to a new epoch ruled by humans has grown since the Nobel laureate atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen used it in 2000. In 2013 alone, the word appeared in 200 peer-reviewed articles, Joseph Stromberg reported for Smithsonian Magazine.

Popularity alone does not change geologic fact, however, and some of the scientists who specialize in rock layers have said the Anthropocene epoch has more pop-culture appeal than scientific validity. Agriculture made its mark on Europe's rock layers as long ago as 900 AD, Whitney Autin, a stratigrapher at the SUNY College of Brockport told Smithsonian Magazine, so the Anthropocene epoch, “provides eye-catching jargon, but from the geologic side, I need the bare bones facts that fit the code.”

Any formal change to the geologic definition would require establishing a formal start date, and candidates vary from the time when nuclear testing altered soil composition in 1950, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the formal beginning of colonialism in 1610, or even the changes in agriculture a thousand years ago.

The working group's article published in the journal Science favors the 1950 date, but setting a fixed start time would take years, reported Jonathan Amos for the BBC, because researchers must take geologic samples using boreholes from around the globe.

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