The Anthropocene – a new epoch?


The subject of whether we are entering a new geological age has arisen recently, particularly since the start of this century. As I understand it the term Anthropogene has been around for a while as an alternative and slightly less formal name for the Holocene which is the most recent geological  epoch of the Quaternary Period, effectively an interglacial period from about 9700 BCE during which time man has had some significant effect on his environment but not sufficient to constitute a new geological epoch. Now the consideration is of a new epoch with the slightly different name at probably the same hierarchical level as the Pleistocene and Holocene. Given all the fuss around carbon emissions one could have forgiven the guys coming up with neoCarboniferous or similar mod term but on the other hand the Carboniferous Period lasted some 60 million years and I doubt that the agents creating the new epoch will be around for that length of time. There have been suggestions that the work of the Anthropocene Working Group is proceeding on a geological timescale in which case the epoch could be over before it has been recognised. The agenda for meetings suggests there is a lot to decide on. For example “What is the relative value of formalizing the ‘Anthropocene’ chronostratigraphic / geochronological unit as opposed to leaving it as an informal term?” A rather more pedestrian item is “Coffee Break” when “Break for Carbon Sequestration”  could be expected unless of course they believe that would nullify their efforts to formalise this new epoch, in which case “Smoke Break” might be more appropriate. In any case I dispute the term ‘break’ for something which is not so much a break between two events but rather what should be viewed as a period of change encompassing the hydrocene, lactocene, caffeine etc.

As befits a geology organisation there is a hierarchy of organisations, so the working group is part of the The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, itself a constituent body of The International Commission on Stratigraphy, which in turn is the largest scientific organisation within the International Union of Geological Sciences. The Competition Commission is investigating whether this constitutes a pyramid scheme or simply a method of ensuring all the world’s geologists have some group membership to include on their cv.

The group puts forward the following evidence for a new epoch:

Changes in:erosion and sediment transport associated with a variety of anthropogenic processes, including colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with significant anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals; in environmental conditions generated by these perturbations; including global warming, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic ‘dead zones’; in the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, species invasions and the physical and chemical changes.

They are still apparently not completely decided on whether it might be represented as a sub-division of the Holocene or a new epoch. Various dates have been put forward from time to time as to when it commenced, with admirable precision compared to earlier epochs, including the start of the industrial revolution, the start of the nuclear age when plutonium was widely scattered around the planet and the start of the laying down of plastic in the geological sequence. Given how long it is likely to last it may seem rather arrogant to categorise it in this way but perhaps the changes we make may eventually warrant it marking a point in time not unlike the impact of a large celestial body.

Sources: The Anthropocene Working Group; Scott Adams.


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