It’s actually nothing new. It’s been happening for thousands of years. Human beings have influenced the planet to such a degree that we have become of force of nature. What is new is the label? Welcome to the Anthropocene.
A new article released in Science Magazine examines the impacts of humans and suggests they are significant enough to create a marked difference from previous epochs on Earth. Proposed beginnings of an “early Anthropocene go back thousands of years to the spread of agriculture, deforestation, and exchanging of species.
A quick refresher on the geologic time periods of planet Earth:
Way, way, way back, between 4.5 billion and 600 million years ago, there was the Precambrian Eon. Think a tumultuous planet devoid of life until finally single-celled and eventually multi-celled beings like sponges developed. And you thought it was a long wait for the sixth season of Game of Thrones.
Now we’re in the Phanerozoic Eon which encompasses different periods like the Cambrian, featuring ancestors of the backbone; Jurassic — you know, the one with all the dinosaurs; and our current period, the Quaternary, which is broken into the Pleistocene — the most recent ice age that supported mammoths, giant sloths, and early humans — and what has been called the Holocene.
For even more details and epochs, check out this geologic timescale:
Bringing us up to date, the Holocene epoch began 11,700 years ago and is represented by the development of humans. So why the new name now? Agriculture, development, and technology on their own wouldn’t merit a change. But over the years the impacts of humans have altered “long-term global geologic processes.” A few examples:
Technofossils – I’m sure you’ve heard of all the plastic found in our oceans, in seabirds’ stomachs, and in landfills. Given the slow decay of plastic, such materials will be left behind in the fossil record. Oh yeah, concrete and aluminum too.
Changing the soil – Fertilizers have altered the chemical makeup of the soil. Pesticides and herbicides get into water sources. Topsoil has been degraded. These kinds of changes will be apparent in the sediment and rock in ages to come.
Altering the rivers – Dams — over 40,000 large dams worldwide — are built to utilize and control rivers, changing ecosystems and limiting the sediment that would naturally flow into oceans and seas.
Landfills – In addition to the trash that will slowly decompose, landfills for mining and construction waste introduce and contain new minerals in the environment, more than have been seen for 2.3 billion years.
Each major geologic time period marks its end by a major event, like an asteroid striking the earth or global warming to end an ice age. What will we humans do to bring about the end or continuance of ours?