New insights on the Anthropocene

This article from the Guardian is based on a new study that provides one of the strongest cases yet that the planet has entered a new geological epoch. It contains useful graphics and photos to illustrate the global scale of human impact on the planet. The question of whether humans’ combined environmental impact has tipped the planet into an “Anthropocene” – ending the current Holocene which began around 12,000 years ago – will be put to the geological body that formally approves such time divisions later this year. “We could be looking here at a step change from one world to another that justifies being called an epoch,” said Dr Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and an author on the study published in Science on Thursday.

  • We’ve pushed extinction rates of flora and fauna far above the long-term average. The Earth is now on course for a sixth mass extinction which would see 75% of species extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue
  • Increased the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 120 parts per million since the industrial revolution because of fossil fuel-burning, leaving concentrations today at around 400ppm and rising
  • Nuclear weapon tests in the 1950s and 60s left traces of an isotope common in nature, 14C, and a naturally rare isotope, 293Pu, through the Earth’s mid-latitudes
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with our fertiliser use. According to some research, we’ve had the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years
  • Left a permanent marker in sediment and glacial ice with airborne particulates such as black carbon from fossil fuel-burning

A further article about the status of the Anthropocene examines the same issue

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