The Anthropocene: The Earth’s new geological era

Humans have changed the Earth to such an extent that some scientists say we have entered a new geological epoch?

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Human activity might have pushed us into the Athropocene epoch [EPA]

There is growing evidence that human activity has changed the Earth’s system to such an extent that we are now in a new geological age. 

This is according to members of the Anthropocene Working Group who will present their findings to the 35th International Geological Congress, which kicks off on August 27 in Cape Town, South Africa.

If they announce that a new geological era, or epoch, has begun, this would pave the way for a formal declaration that could happen in just two years.

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This would be a major announcement, highlighting the dramatic changes that humans have caused to the Earth.

It would confirm that the changes caused by humans are as big as those that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age nearly 12,000 years ago. 

In fact, the rate of change of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are even greater.

Our new geological epoch would be called the Anthropocene, a word which comes from anthropo for ‘man’, and cene for ‘new’.

It would bring an end to the Holocene, which began at the end of the last Ice Age.

‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’

A number of recent studies argue that we are already in the Anthropocene, but the definition is fairly drastic.

Earth scientists define the Anthropocene as “the very recent rupture in Earth’s history arising from the impact of human activity on the Earth system as a whole”.

In order to officially mark the beginning of a new epoch, changes must be apparent in the atmosphere, the water cycle, in plants and animals, and in rocks.

Thanks to the dramatic increase of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, reaching some of the aforementioned criteria will be easy.  

Global temperatures have increased by an average of one Celsius in a little over a century.

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Glaciers have melted, the temperature of the oceans has risen and their acidity has altered.

A number of animal and plant species have become extinct, and corals have suffered a number of devastating bleaching events.

Plastic rubbish, widely used nitrogen fertilisers and smoke from the burning of fossil fuels will remain visible within the Earth’s rock formations for millions of years.

The idea that we are now living in the Anthropocene has been gaining ground in recent years, and soon we will discover if geologists agree that the new epoch has truly begun.

The start of a new geological age, however, is not a time to celebrate. As Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, told Nature magazine:

“Some scientists even write: ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’. At first I thought they were being ironic, but now I see they are not. And that’s scary. The idea of the Anthropocene is not welcoming. It should frighten us. And scientists should present it as such.”