We are experiencing a truly momentous event. For 11,700 years we have been living in the epoch our geologist kin call the Holocene. Now they may be about to announce that we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, one we created all by ourselves.
What an achievement! We may be the only species in Earth’s history to create an epoch. Not that it’s something to be especially proud about. It is, after all, the result of our despoliation of the planet.
Geologists and other scientists have been toiling since 2009 to determine the answers to a series of questions. The first, the big one, is “Would aliens sifting through Earth’s layered rocks and sediment a million years from now discern a human signature distinctive enough to mark a clear geological boundary?” If so, when did it start? And finally, what piece of evidence might best represent the new epoch, might be the “golden spike” as they put it?
The answer to the first question was yes. The answer to the second was the middle of the 20th century when dozens of markers, including surging greenhouse gasses and microplastic pollution, biodiversity loss and radioactive traces from atom bomb testing, added up to what scientists now call the Great Acceleration.
The answer to the third question was announced last week in joint press conferences at the Max Planck Society in Berlin and a meeting of working group scientists in Lille, France. The “winner” is close to home—Crawford Lake in Ontario.
The lake is tiny but very deep for its size. As a result the bottom layer of water doesn’t mix with upper layers. It is essentially isolated from the rest of the planet, except for what sinks to the bottom and accumulates in sediment. The surrounding limestone rock dissolves in the water but crystallizes out when the weather warms and covers the pollen, dead microorganisms, pollution particles and other debris with a marker, year after year. The result is a record of the annual climate, environmental and ecological conditions.
The conclusions of the working group must now be validated by scientists at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).
It will be a tough slog and the chances of approval are slim. Other scientists are not convinced. Phil Gibbard, Secretary of the ICS, suggests that the Holocene is simply another interglacial period and the Anthropocene a mere event, not an epoch.
Nonetheless, the magnitude is hard to grasp. For the first time in history, one species has radically changed the planet’s morphology, chemistry and biology and is aware of what it has done. This one species’ mischief is creating effects on a geological scale.
Also hard to grasp is that a seemingly intelligent species could persist in such foolishness. We have known about global warming for generations, and that it is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, yet today we burn more fossil fuels than ever. We know that the ridiculous inefficiency of eating meat to gain our protein is terribly destructive to our environment, yet we avert our eyes and munch on.
An intelligent species maybe, but obviously not a very wise one.
As Johan Rockstrom, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has pointed out. “The Holocene is the only state that can support us.” And as his colleague geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, who led the the Anthropocene Working Group, added, the Holocene conditions that allowed us to flourish are rapidly disappearing.
Epoch or event, the Anthropocene is real.