The Anthropocene Epoch

It seems to me….

“Imagine our descendants in the year 2200 or 2500. They might liken us to aliens who have treated the Earth as if it were a mere stopover for refueling, or even worse, characterize us as barbarians who would ransack their own home.” ~ Paul J. Crutzen[1].

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his model of the universe placing the sun at the center of the universe rather than the Earth. In 1859 Charles Darwin showed that humans are just another species of animal. In the 20th century geologists realized that all of human recorded history only began around the 4th or 5th century BCE with the Hellenic Greeks while our planet is 4.6 billion years old. We now know we live on an average planet circling an average star far out on a spiral arm of an average galaxy that is only one of an estimated 10 trillion other galaxies each of which contains about 100 billion stars.

Still, one thing is unique: our small rather insignificant planet is our home and the only one on which we live. As this for now is our only option as a place to live, we should be taking better care of it. Life is dependent upon our planet maintaining a delicate equilibrium of the correct amounts of air quality (oxygen, carbon dioxide…), flora (forests, grasslands, savannahs…), water (oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, ice…) and other life forms (fauna, aquatic, microscopic…) – everything is interrelated and interdependent. We are not being very good caretakers.

It is obvious that humans have profoundly altered a significant proportion of our environment but has human activity affected enough aspects of our planet to a sufficient extent that if all life suddenly terminated that any archeological evidence would remain of our existence? Artifacts would decay and crumble; nature would relatively quickly reclaim the planet undoing even our greatest constructs or accomplishments.

It is now believed that industrialized humanity has changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and modified the landscape and biosphere to such an extent that geological change is sufficiently perverse to represent a distinct era in our planet’s history similar to other epochs such as the Jurassic, Cretaceous, Pleistocene, or Holocene. The Anthropocene would be but the latest unit designating this geologic time scale.

There are valid arguments for the end of the Holocene, the present geological epoch which has lasted for 12,000 years, and recognizing that Earth has entered a new one: the Anthropocene[2]. It basically acknowledges that humans, far from being merely another species on the planet’s surface, now fundamentally affect the way it works.

The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Neither the International Commission on Stratigraphy nor the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) has yet officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geological time.

Humans are the Earth’s dominant predator taking about a quarter of the planet’s total biological production, constitute about a third of the landmass of all land vertebras, and responsible for the extermination of a sufficient number of species for the planet’s biodiversity to be considered catastrophic. Even if all humans were to suddenly disappear, our effect on the planet; species extermination, climate change, sea-level rise…; will continue well into the future. Now, the emergent technosphere, itself an outgrowth of the biosphere, represents the possibility of even greater future planetary change[3].

The question is what clearly differentiates this new epoch from the previous one; geologists traditionally demand clear and sudden change visible in rocks. While the exchange of species between the New and Old Worlds in the 1600s or the appearance of plastics in the 1950s might seem sufficient; most of the Anthropocene Working Group’s (AWG) members preferred the high point of nuclear-weapons testing in 1964. Fallout from those tests scattered plutonium, an element vanishingly rare in nature, far and wide across the planet. Future geologists, depending on precisely how much time has passed and therefore how much radioactive decay has occurred, will be able to see a layer of plutonium, uranium, or (eventually) lead in the rocks. At their congress, the AWG’s members voted for this “bomb spike” to be the marker.

A recent paper[4] summarized research that identifies major ways in which Holocene conditions no longer exist.

  • Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have exceeded Holocene levels since at least 1850, and from 1999 to 2010 they rose about 100 times faster than the increase that ended the last ice age. Methane concentrations have risen even further and faster.
  • For thousands of years, until 1800, global average temperatures were slowly falling, a result of small cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit. Since then, increased greenhouse gases have caused the planet to warm abnormally rapidly overriding the orbital climate cycle.
  • Between 1906 and 2005, the average global temperature increased by up to 0.9°C, and over the past 50 years the rate of change has doubled.
  • Average global sea levels began rising above Holocene levels between 1905 and 1945. They are now at their highest level in about 115,000 years and the rate of increase is accelerating.
  • Species extinction rates are far above normal background rates. If current trends of habitat loss and overexploitation continue, 75 percent of species could die out in the next few centuries. This would be the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event and equivalent to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It is extremely unfortunate that essentially everything differentiating the proposed Anthropocene epoch from the preceding Holocene is negative. This planet will be our home for the foreseeable future and we should be taking better care of it. If we do not, humans might very likely also be headed for extinction.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Paul Jozef Crutzen is a Dutch, Nobel Prize-winning, atmospheric chemist.

[2] Worland, Justin. The Anthropocene Should Bring Awe-and Act As a Warning, Time, http://time.com/4475604/the-anthropocene-should-bring-awe-and-act-as-a-warning/?iid=sr-link6, 1 September 2016.

[3] Zalas Ewicz, Jan. A History In Layers, Scientific America, September 2016, pp30-37.

[4] Yes, A New Epoch Has Begun, Peak Oil, http://peakoil.com/enviroment/yes-a-new-epoch-has-begun/comment-page-1, 12 January 2016.

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About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Air Quality, Anthropocene, Anthropocene Working Group, anthropogenic, AWG, Biosphere, Charles Darwin, Climate, Climate Change, Climate Change Conference, CO2, Cretaceous, Environment, Evolution, Extinction, Extinctions, Flora, Galaxy, Geology, Global Warming, Global Warming, Greece, Greeks, Hellenic, Holocene, International Commission on Stratigraphy, International Union of Geological Sciences, IUGS, Jurassic, Methane, Nicolaus Copernicus, Pleistocene, technosphere and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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