The Anthropocene: Are we in a new, human-induced epoch?

Scientists say that the influence of human activity on the Earth has kicked off a new geological epoch.

NASA/Reuters
The Iberian Peninsula at night, showing Spain and Portugal, is seen in an undated NASA handout picture taken from the International Space Station. Madrid is the bright spot just above the center.

The indelible imprint left by human beings on Earth has become so clear that it justifies naming a new geological epoch after mankind, experts said on Thursday.

The dawn of the "Anthropocene" would signal the end of the Holocene epoch, considered to have begun 11,700 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. The new term, suggested in 2000, is based on the Greek word "anthropos," meaning "man."

"Human activity is leaving a pervasive and persistent signature on Earth," said a report in the journal Science by an international team led by Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey.

"We are becoming a geological agent in ourselves," Waters told Reuters.

The start date could be around the mid-20th century, the authors wrote.

They said the atomic age, starting with a bomb test in New Mexico in the United States on July 16, 1945, and the post-war leap in mining, industry, farming and use of manmade materials such as concrete or plastics all left geological traces.

Concrete, invented by the Romans, was now so ubiquitous that it would amount to one kg (2.2 lbs) for every square meter (11 sq feet) of the planet's surface if spread out evenly, they said.

Any formal recommendation to adopt the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch would require years of extra research, partly to pin down a start date, Waters said.

Some experts reckon the Anthropocene began with Europe's Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Others would give it a more widespread origin, dating it from the spread of agriculture several thousand years ago.

"Any definition will inform the stories that we tell about human development," said Professor Simon Lewis of University College London, who was not involved in the study. He favors 1610 as a start date, marking the spread of colonialism, disease and trade to the Americas from Europe.

Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, a co-author of the study released on Thursday, said pinning down the Anthropocene would transform understanding of humanity's role on the planet.

He said it was a "challenge no smaller than a second Copernican revolution." In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus helped show the Earth rotates around the sun.

(Abstract available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.aad2622; Reporting by Alister Doyle; editing by Andrew Roche)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.