Out with the Anthropocene – in with the Meghalayan

WUWT readers may recall that climate activists wanted the current epoch we live in to be named the “Anthropocene”, because they believe humans are the dominate force on the planet. The official organization that decides such things, The International Commission on Stratigraphy, would have none of it, and nixed the naming recently. Now, here’s a summary of the the Meghalayan.


Welcome to the new Meghalayan age – here’s how it fits with the rest of Earth’s geologic history

Steve Petsch

Associate Professor of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Jurassic, Pleistocene, Precambrian. The named times in Earth’s history might inspire mental images of dinosaurs, trilobites or other enigmatic animals unlike anything in our modern world.

Labels like these are part of a system scientists use to divide up Earth’s 4.6 billion year history. The biggest divisions are eons which split into eras, which break into epochs, which divide into periods and then all the way down to ages.

Officially, we’re living in the Holocene epoch. Informally, people talk about our current age as the Anthropocene, melding humans with the lingo of geologic time. And now, there’s a new age with a new name – the Meghalayan. So how did the custom of dividing and categorizing time get started, and who gets to decide when there is a new age, epoch or era?

Before the ages, naming the rocks

The geologic time scale was not entirely intentional, at least at its start. In the early 1800s, geologists began to create maps and descriptions showing where different types of rocks occurred throughout western Europe.

Some of this was driven by natural curiosity. The Triassic is named because the same three-part layering – carbonate-rich shale on top of fossil-rich limestone on top of red sandstone – was found throughout western Europe. To European scientists, this configuration seemed common enough to warrant a name.

Some labeling emerged from economic motivations. If a particular type of sandstone or limestone or coal proved useful, then people wanted to know where else to put a quarry or mine to find the same rock.

The study of how rocks are layered and organized became formalized as stratigraphy. To assign a name to a particular rock, stratigraphers put criteria in place. There had to be a location where the archetype of that rock could be found. There should be a widespread geographic distribution, as for the Triassic. There might be signature fossils that only occur in that rock, or are not found in younger rocks (suggesting an extinction) or older rocks (telling us when a new species developed).

Names for the divisions of the rock record drew from where those rocks were first or best described – Devonian rocks in Devonshire, Cambrian rocks in Wales (Cambria, as the Romans called the region) – or from obvious characteristics. Cretaceous rocks in Europe are full of fossils that provide a rich source of chalk. Carboniferous rocks around the world include important coal resources.

Rocks near Gubbio, Italy, change in color and texture at the line indicating the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. A baseball hat shows scale. Robert DeConto and Mark Leckie, UMass GeosciencesCC BY-ND

Rocks equal time

The big mental leap came in connecting rocks with time – those Devonian rocks were formed during what came to be called Devonian time. That’s how geologic time became a convenient shorthand for major events and changes in life’s history on Earth. The Cretaceous is not just chalk. It’s a time when conditions were just right for the seas to be filled with huge populations of plankton – whose bodies sank to the ocean floor and eventually formed chalk when they died.

What began as a system to distinguish different rocks in western Europe has grown into a formalized, sophisticated and systematic way of thinking about life and time and the ways these are recorded in rocks.

The history of Earth’s atmosphere is one example. Invisible chemical proxies created by ancient organisms and preserved in sedimentary rocks record the rises and falls in oxygen and carbon dioxide over the past 600 million years. These coincide with events along the geologic timescale such as major mass extinctions, the evolution of land plants and the assembly and breakup of supercontinents.

Be it fossils or minerals or minute chemical signatures, the stratigraphic records reveals the interplay between life, earth and environment through time.

The official chart of geologic time over Earth’s billions of years. http://www.stratigraphy.orgCC BY-NC-ND

Defining the Meghalayan Age

Scientists still continue to refine the geologic timescale. This summer brought the official naming of a new age: the Meghalayan.

Layers within the Indian stalagmite that defines the beginning of the Late Holocene Meghalayan Age, 4,200 years ago. Stanley C. Finney, CSULBCC BY-ND

Numerous climate records show that Earth faced an abrupt shift towards a cooler and drier climate 4,200 years ago. A team led by stratigrapher and climate scientist Mike Walker proposed that this was a significant and global-scale event, best represented by climate signals found in a stalagmite from Mawmluh Cave in Meghalaya state, in northeast India.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) and its parent body, the International Union of Geological Sciences, vote on and ratify such proposals. ICS is in effect the official keeper of the geologic time scale. When a new time division is approved, as in the case of the Meghalayan, ICS sets the official description and adds that new detail to the geologic time scale.

All rocks younger than 4,200 years are now part of the Meghalayan Stage. Time since 4,200 years ago is in the Meghalayan Age. But there is a lot to unpack in these details.

Splitting up the Holocene

As of July 2018, the Holocene – the most recent epoch of time spanning from 11,700 years ago to the present – is divided into three ages: the Greenlandian, the Northgrippian and the Meghalayan.

Those first two are unusual because their type localities are not rocks. Instead, they’re layers of ice deep within the Greenland Ice Sheet. Both are defined by major, global-scale environmental change: warming in the case of the Greenlandian and ripple effects of melting ice sheets for the Northgrippian.

The Meghalayan, too, is unusual, and not just for its first-ever use of a stalagmite as the rock that defines the archetype. The global-scale climate change that defines the beginning of the Meghalayan coincides with a period of ongoing migration and collapse of many early human civilizations around the globe. For the first time, our stratigraphy has been defined at least in part by effects on human activities.

What about the Anthropocene?

Which brings us to the idea of an Anthropocene – a proposed division of geologic time defined by signs of human activities in the geologic record. If human activities can be associated with divisions of geologic time – as was done for the Meghalayan – and we define geologic time based on various characteristics in rocks, then what to make of the inescapable imprint of human activities in the rock record?

There are good arguments to be made both for and against an Anthropocene.

Tiny microplastic particles are spreading across the environment, leaving a human signature in Earth’s stratigraphy. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Human beings have clearly altered landscapes through deforestation, agriculture and industrialization, which among other things have accelerated erosion and sediment accumulation. Plastics are accumulating in our oceans and biosphere, leaving a global-scale marker of these synthetic materials in soils and sediments. People are causing high extinction rates and rapid changes in where species are found around the world. And of course burning fossil fuels and human-induced climate change leave signatures in sediment records worldwide.

But to date, the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not approved the designation of an Anthropocene. One challenge is agreeing on when the Anthropocene should begin. While things such as plastics or carbon dioxide from fossil fuels are geologically recent, human impacts on landscapes, biodiversity and biogeography may extend back thousands of years. It is very hard to pinpoint the first moment in time when our species began to affect the Earth.

The new divisions of the Holocene also cut into the available time for an Anthropocene. The Meghalayan begins 4,200 years ago and continues to the present. Simply put, there is no time left over in the Holocene where we could put an Anthropocene.

For the Anthropocene to be included in the formal geologic time scale, stratigraphers will need to argue that its onset was global in scale, simultaneous around the world and significant in its imprint on the geologic record.

Or maybe these types of formal requirements no longer apply. As scientists recognize that humans are now part of stratigraphy, perhaps we need to rethink our criteria in a way that separates geologic time from human time.

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58 thoughts on “Out with the Anthropocene – in with the Meghalayan

    • “We are a plague on the earth”. These people hate humans, clearly. “A clean and pure pristine primeval planet earth existed for a billion years in natural perfection, wholeness, and wholesomeness – unpolluted, untainted, untarnished and uncorrupted in the perfection of the harmony of nature. ”

      But their mistake, like all religious people, is to see humans as separate from nature. The earth was not ‘pristine’! Every square inch exhibited signs of life fighting for it’s survival. Ever seen a rock island covered in sea gull shit? Man sometimes damages his environment to that extent. More often we impact it in the way Beavers do. ie powerfully, but also creating new ecosystems (quarries are notable for this, especially when abandoned and they flood, but also buildings, roof spaces for example).

      We are just monkeys with brains, little different to other monkeys, and higher primates in essence. We have every right to use the planet to our advantage. We are however the only animal to be aware of the potential damage we can do, and to limit it as much as possible.

  1. Surprised those so fond of pronoun invention haven’t demanded it be called the “Anythingyouwantocene” or the “handwringingocene.

    I think the “Adjustocene” just about nailed it. Make it what you want.

    • Since the taxonomy is based on geologic evidence maybe the Anthropocene is better named the Rockhead age in honor of those who are too dense to see the evidence.

  2. “Informally, people talk about our current age as the Anthropocene”…you’re hanging with the wrong crowd

    “defined by signs of human activities”..as opposed to any other large group of animals in the past which did the exact same thing

  3. In a few thousand years, the plastics will be gone. Eaten by bacteria.
    Also, the increase in the extinction rate is barely measurable.

    • In the field I observe styrofoam, which has been around for only some 60 years, that is showing signs of decomposition. I cannot prove that bacteria are evolving to eat this stuff, but they do eat crude oil, and in huge quantities. It makes sense that such adaptable creatures as bacteria will evolve to consume all that plastic. May take a few human lifetimes, but so what?

      [We’re sorry to inform you, but your common sense pragmatism has no place in this world of alarmism. Please keep future rational comments to yourself. /sarc 🙂 -mod]

  4. …People are causing high extinction rates…

    We don’t yet know enough about species extinction to say this, and the claims that it is happening are just claims – usually by activists wielding models. A link to the ‘Conversation’ blog is hardly evidence. In fact, ALL the points you make are environmental activist claims, and cannot be considered to be provably true. The most plausible of these is the plastics one, and even that is dubious – it seems as likely that disposed plastics are eroded down to microscopic size and consumed by microbes rather than settled into sediment.

  5. Anyone else ever notice that thin moss/lichen patina layer on concrete and rocks, it seems to be eaten very slowly. Microbes eat spilled oil, will microbes eat bits of plastic too?

  6. Here’s the rub…

    Simply put, there is no time left over in the Holocene where we could put an Anthropocene.

    The Anthropocene-pushers don’t want an age or stage within the Holocene. They want a separate epoch. There’s a far stronger case for demoting the Holocene an age or stage within the Pleistocene than there is for ginning up a new epoch. Of course, if they demoted the Holocene, they would have to change the name… -cene refers to an epoch within the Cenozoic Era.

  7. Off Topic – This just in on Drudge:

    SNOW ON THE SAVANNAH Giraffes and elephants wander
    about in the snow after freak blizzards hit Africa

    Animals more suited to the brilliant sunshine usually
    associated with the continent have been snapped
    trudging through snow in amazing pictures

      • Thanks. I was confused by the delta between his description and the “official” chart from stratigraphy.org…I was wondering if there was some nuance I was missing that explained why periods were subdivisions of epochs.

        rip

    • Yep, Professor Steve says: “The biggest divisions are eons which split into eras, which break into epochs, which divide into periods and then all the way down to ages.”
      I know it’s over a generation since I studied geology formally, but I wasn’t aware that epochs (eg Pleistocene) outranked periods (eg Cretaceous).
      Further: “All rocks younger than 4,200 years are now part of the Meghalayan Stage. Time since 4,200 years ago is in the Meghalayan Age.” Well, is it age or stage or is the author saying these two are different?
      This struggle with nomenclature doesn’t inspire me with regard to the author’s merit.

      • Since they are dealing with an absolute date (Geochronological) it is Age. Stage is a chronostratigraphic term which doesn’t really apply when your type location is a single speleothem in a cave in Asia. Though, both geochronological and chronostratigraphical are more administrative methods just to make a pretty chart and create cooperation for nomenclature. Applied geology uses lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy which are more scientifically meaningful.

    • and I just wasted part of my valuable morning trying to memorize this taxonomy and now you tell me it’s wrong….@#!!

  8. Plastics disappear. All of them are biodegradeable (choke on that eco-worriers), so they wont leave a lasting trace – just a bit of water and a puff of CO2. Microbes devour them. Fake news photos of flotillas of plastic bottles, and other products choking up a shoreline or river in poor countries result from heavy rains and storms that wash garbage piles and dirty streets into the sea.

    Our guilt ridden шнуте Starbuck lepers, weeping into their rip-off $5 lattes (coffee with milk for the realist) have to blame their loathsome selves for using plastic straws! Actually I think they make a lousy cup of coffee, but self flaggelaters don’t want a tasty coffee. The entire mea culpa industry is a fake news product. A little aid to the Philippines to help them select and engineer their landfills, or initiate an industry to remelt and manufacture with the stuff and 5he problem would be 80% solved. Maybe it can be cracked into diesel. If there was a bit of honesty among the hating class any real problems might be solved.

  9. “they believe humans are the dominate force on the planet.”

    There is a huge difference between humans having a detectable effect and them being the dominate force on the planet. The first may be true, but it is not as clear cut as the article suggests, the second is obviously false.

    Looking at the suggested signatures in detail:
    – “Human beings have clearly altered landscapes through deforestation, agriculture and industrialization, which among other things have accelerated erosion and sediment accumulation.” Probably true, but industrialisation is the least important of the 3.
    – “Plastics are accumulating in our oceans and biosphere, leaving a global-scale marker of these synthetic materials in soils and sediments.” It is doubtful how long the plastics will last.
    – “People are causing high extinction rates and rapid changes in where species are found around the world.” Probably undetectable in the fossil record, the alleged high extinction rate is fabricated by identifying huge numbers of subspecies and claiming they are all species; the fossil record will not be able to tell them apart.
    – “of course burning fossil fuels and human-induced climate change leave signatures in sediment records worldwide.” There is no “of course” about it, the tiny human effect on climate change will be completely masked by natural climate change.

    • For anyone who believes that man leaves a lasting impression on the planet. Take a look at any building that has been abandoned for 20 years.

      • Agreed. Of the original Seven Wonders of the World only the Pyramids are extant. Being man made mountains of stone they could last 200,000 years.
        The Mayan temples, Michu Pichu and Angkor Wat would be on their way to oblivion if they weren’t conserved by humans.

  10. Meghalayan

    Sorry. I’ve tears in my eyes. This is *not* possible.
    Say it again..

    Meghalayan

    Amazing, not least as it proves conclusively my theory about how Human Animals cannot pass off untruth and that we truly are in the Age of Dumb

    OK-I’ll say it: Why not the Preposterous Porky Pie Age?

    Same thing
    wicked

  11. I think a little bit of explaining on the Holocene subdivisions is in order to understand why the Holocene has been sliced that way.

    Scandinavian palinologists were the first to divide the Holocene in four vegetation periods, Boreal, Atlantic, Sub-Boreal, and Sub-Atlantic, of roughly 2500 years each although varying depending on location (the Blytt-Sernander sequence). Soon after, American paleoclimatologists were also identifying a clearly warmer period within the Holocene that they called Hypsithermal or Altithermal (Scandinavians called it Optimum since they know what cold is about). The period after was clearly a Neoglaciation, as glaciers advanced, also called Medithermal, and the period before Anathermal (warming). This subdivisions were in place in the late 1950’s.

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ciprian_Ardelean2/publication/315781822/figure/fig4/AS:479607947304969@1491358853733/This-image-summarizes-the-discussion-in-this-paper-and-presents-the-situation-of-the.png

    The main point was that in the middle of the Holocene there has been a warmer period. But the dates moved around depending on where one was looking. In the Northern high latitudes ~ 45-75°N the warmer period did not start until the ice sheets melted, while in Northern low and very high latitudes ~ 20-45°N and >75°N the warmer period took place earlier as it was associated to the peak in summer insolation that took place ~ 10,000 years ago. In the Southern Hemisphere the situation is even less clear as the insolation is inverted.

    Nevertheless among researchers there was the conviction that the Holocene had to be divided in three (I prefer the four period division of Blytt-Sernander), namely Early, Middle, and Late Holocene. Most researchers are also convinced that Modern Global Warming constitutes a new period, but it is too young to be properly evaluated.

    The ICS is sensitive to researchers opinion and to what is more often reflected in publications, as it wants the definitions to be useful and to last. The problem was how to divide the Holocene in three roughly 4000 year periods, as its start had already been placed at 11,700 years ago. As I have said if you go to a different location the changes take place at a different time. So they looked for two well dated abrupt climatic changes at 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. Those obviously are the 8.2 kyr event and the 4.2 kyr event.

    The best dating is provided by ice cores, that have annual resolution, so the first two periods Greenlandian, and NorthGrippian are defined in that way. But ice cores don’t reflect well the 4.2 kyr event that was centered in the Arabian Sea, so they chose a speleothem that shows it very clearly and with good resolution.

    The Holocene subdivisions are not geological. They are climatic. The rocks didn’t change. And they are not global. Neither the 8.2 kyr event, nor the 4.2 kyr event were global in nature. They do however reflect the climatic evolution of the Holocene, so at least they are useful to researchers.

    The Anthropocene serves no scientific purpose. It is a political division and the ICS is not prepared to go that way. In due time it will have to be recognized that a period change took place during the LIA and we are no longer in the Meghalayan. We have inaugurated a new period that in my opinion will last ~ 2500 years (like the previous Blytt-Sernander periods) and will end in the next glacial inception, being the last of the Holocene.

    By the way, my article in WUWT, that was the first published about this issue, last July…
    New Holocene geological subdivisions. The Anthropocene nowhere to be found.
    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/07/09/new-holocene-geological-subdivisions-the-anthropocene-nowhere-to-be-found/
    …keeps being ignored when the issue comes back. I wonder why I bother.

    • As a geologist who has not really had to work with the geological time scale in a long time, I found your post interesting and informative. I hope that’s why you bother. 🙂

  12. Typical scientism drivel. Science won’t let us do what we want, so let’s just change science to suit our desires. Those last two sentences are just astonishingly arrogant.

  13. Adding the ‘Anthropocene’ to the geologic time scale makes about as much sense as adding the Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment.

  14. Guess I’m a lumper not a splitter. In biology were are in an age of splitting because the splitters get all the money.

  15. The Stones Ages did not end for lack of stone. I think it is better not to be cemented in to a sentimental (sediment?) thought.
    In Vernadsky’s 1931 writing, “The Study of Life and the New Physics” Vernadsky’s comments on the “special psychozoic epoch” we are living through:

    “… the action of life on our planet develops and changes by the effect of [mankind’s] intelligence to such an extent, that it becomes possible to speak of a special psychozoic epoch in the history of our planet, analogous to other geological epochs in the change effected in living nature on Earth, as during the Cambrian or Oligocene, for example. With the appearance of a living being on our planet gifted with intelligence, we pass into another stage of its history.”

    It is better to use the term noosphere- the cement shoe treatment was after all a mob trick. We are dealing here with us, mankind, not one of the 98% of all species now extinct.

  16. Aren’t we the most fortunate generation … we get to name the age within which we exist. Perhaps other peoples have done this in antiquity, only to be outvoted by some committee that followed them by a few centuries. But I’m confident that our science is so sound, our arguments so persuasive, that our definition will survive the eons.

  17. So exactly how many “scenes” have been named/identified by their current inhabitants?
    Don’t we need to wait a few millennia to name the next one?

  18. Tiny microplastic particles are spreading across the environment, leaving a human signature in Earth’s stratigraphy. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

    Obviously, and I’m a long way from the first to suggest, the Plasticene

  19. For everyone who thinks that plastic does not degrade, I can assure you that it does, my plastic clothes pegs (pins in USA?) are continually breaking due to the intense sunlight here in Southern Spain.

  20. I was with him until, “And of course burning fossil fuels and human-induced climate change leave signatures in sediment records worldwide.”

    Interesting nevertheless.

  21. Just say we are still in the Pleistocene era in a Holocene interglacial (like the Eemian before it), and be done with it.

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