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Economic Geology News

Anthropocene Revisited – Is Formalisation Useful for Geology? (16 January 2016)

Recently, a paper in Science (Waters et al. 2016) described the profound influence of humans on Earth surface processes. In conclusion, the two dozen authors support formalisation of the Anthropocene as a new Epoch (equal to Holocene or Pleistocene) in the Geological Time Scale. Recognizing that human impact started with ice age hunters and accelerated to our days, the authors do not settle on a specific event or year but propose more research. Yet they state, that the start of the Anthropocene may be defined by a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA) coinciding with detonation of the Trinity atomic device at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945 CE, or with global fall-out signatures from nuclear tests that peak in about 1963.

The impact of humanity on the Earth is excellently summarized and the paper* is a very useful source of hard data on man-made global change. Yet I feel that there is one big misunderstanding on the part of the authors – they do not describe rocks but mainly processes and their signatures, such as nuclear fall-out, accelerated extinction of species, increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, and climate change. And, strangely, they describe the onset of a geological epoch; rather a point in geological time, or an initial event, than its evolution.

In arguing for the formalisation of the Anthropocene as a new geological Epoch the authors neglect to ask if this will be of any use for geological practice and research. – I would not deny, however, that it will make catchy headlines in grant applications and in the media, but what about the geologist in the field?

Waters et al. refer to waste dumps (of mines or cities) as examples of Anthropocene deposits. But already now it is common practice to depict such features on geomaps. Is it of geological interest to separate pre- and post-1945 waste? Shall we measure traces of fall-out nuclides in dumps or soil in order to determine an Anthropocene age? Or, because practically the whole Earth is already impacted by humans, certainly by nuclear fall-out, shall we simply call all surfaces Anthropocene in age?

In my opinion, formalisation of the term “Anthropocene” as a new geological Epoch is useless for geologists and is therefore redundant.

You may also look at an earlier News Weblog on my website (News Archive 2015): The Anthropocene – a Voice of Reason (24 March 2015)

*Waters, C.N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C. et al. (2016) The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351, pp. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622

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