Guest geology by David Middleton
The fake geologic epoch known as the “Anthropocene” just won’t die… It’s like a zombie from a bad science fiction movie.
NEWS FEATURE 06 AUGUST 2019
Humans versus Earth: the quest to define the Anthropocene
Researchers are hunting for nuclear debris, mercury pollution and other fingerprints of humanity that could designate a new geological epoch.
Crawford Lake is so small it takes just 10 minutes to stroll all the way around its shore. But beneath its surface, this pond in southern Ontario in Canada hides something special that is attracting attention from scientists around the globe. They are in search of a distinctive marker buried deep in the mud — a signal designating the moment when humans achieved such power that they started irreversibly transforming the planet. The mud layers in this lake could be ground zero for the Anthropocene — a potential new epoch of geological time.
This lake is unusually deep for its size so its waters never fully mix, which leaves its bottom undisturbed by burrowing worms or currents. Layers of sediment accumulate like tree rings, creating an archive reaching back nearly 1,000 years.
Given how much people have done to the planet, there are many potential markers. “Scientifically, in terms of evidence, we’re spoiled for choice, but we have to pin it down,” says Jan Zalasiewicz, a palaeobiologist at the University of Leicester, UK, and chair of the AWG.
Once they pick their representative marker, researchers working with the AWG need to gather enough evidence from around the world to convince the governing bodies of geoscience that they have found a truly reliable signal for the start of the Anthropocene. But some scientists argue that human activity has been shaping the planet for thousands of years, and that the working group has settled too quickly on the 1950s for the start of the proposed epoch. Erle Ellis, a geographer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an AWG member, has criticized the committee’s plans for designating the start of the Anthropocene. “The AWG decided the timing of the boundary before deciding on the marker, not the other way around,” says Ellis.
In the end, it will be the rocks that have the final say.
After a decade of investigating this question, the AWG decided in May that humans had, in fact, left an indelible geological mark. In a binding vote in May, 29 of the 34 members opted to move forward with developing a proposal supporting the designation of the Anthropocene.
The AWG’s next task is to put forward a formal proposal identifying a global boundary stratotype section and point (GSSP), or ‘golden spike’…
In its recent vote, the AWG members decided overwhelmingly to pursue a GSSP in the mid-twentieth century.
A series of votes
Like the stratigraphic record that the researchers are studying, the decision to officially designate the Anthropocene is multilayered. The AWG aims to present a final proposal identifying a mid-twentieth-century GSSP to its parent body, the Quaternary Subcommission of the ICS, by 2021. If approved, the proposal will be voted on by the ICS and will then proceed to the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) for final ratification. Only if it passes all these hurdles will the Anthropocene officially become a new unit of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, more commonly known as the Geological Time Scale. So far, all 65 GSSPs that have been ratified are from marine environments, except for the one marking the start of the Holocene, which uses a Greenland ice core.
The formal process has moved much more slowly than has popular culture, which has already embraced the Anthropocene and used the term on everything from record albums to magazine covers. But the AWG is clear that its mandate is to make decisions based on the stratigraphic record alone.
Not everyone is convinced it can do that yet. One sore point is that the working group made a decision on when to set the boundary, even though it had not yet settled on a golden spike in the stratigraphic record. “It is an imposition of ideas onto matter, shaping evidence to fit, but it should be the other way around,” says Matt Edgeworth, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester.
Edgeworth is a member of the AWG but voted against the decision to recognize the Anthropocene.
There’s no agenda here…
Despite being populated with activists like Naomi Oreskes, it has taken the AWG ten years to vote on what their conclusion will be and to start looking for evidence to support their conclusion… And the vote wasn’t unanimous.
Here’s where the Anthropocene dies…
The AWG aims to present a final proposal identifying a mid-twentieth-century GSSP to its parent body, the Quaternary Subcommission of the ICS, by 2021. If approved, the proposal will be voted on by the ICS and will then proceed to the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) for final ratification. Only if it passes all these hurdles will the Anthropocene officially become a new unit of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, more commonly known as the Geological Time Scale. So far, all 65 GSSPs that have been ratified are from marine environments, except for the one marking the start of the Holocene, which uses a Greenland ice core.Nature
The geologic time scale is based on the stratigraphic record, generally found in “rocks”. The Holocene Epoch shouldn’t even be an epoch. It should be an interglacial stage within the Upper Pleistocene, rather than an epoch of equal stature to the Pleistocene. The Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, so clear in the NGRIP ice core, loses all of its uniqueness in Antarctic ice cores, which capture multiple Late Quaternary glacial-interglacial transitions.
Assuming the AWG is ever able to put forward a coherent proposal for an Anthropocene epoch starting in the mid-20th century, they face some high hurdles in getting it ratified.
In the end, it will be the rocks that have the final say.Nature
There aren’t a lot of sedimentary rocks that are only 60-70 years old.
The recent subdivision of the Holocene was based on a formal recommendation from a Working Group and was approved by >60% votes of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy and the ICS Bureau, followed by ratification by the IUGS Executive Committee.
This leads us to the reason that the Anthropocene will almost certainly never be recognized as a formal geologic time period…
The utility of the Anthropocene requires careful consideration by its various potential users. Its concept is fundamentally different from the chronostratigraphic units that are established by ICS in that the documentation and study of the human impact on the Earth system are based more on direct human observation than on a stratigraphic record. The drive to officially recognize the Anthropocene may, in fact, be political rather than scientific.Finney & Edwards, 2016
Dr. Stanley Finney is the Secretary General of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), which would have to ratify any formal changes to the geologic time scale. Dr. Finney’s term as the elected president of the IUGS runs through 2020… I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the AWG plans to present their formal recommendation in 2021?
Finney, Stanley C. & Lucy E. Edwards. “The “Anthropocene” epoch: Scientific decision or political statement?” GSA Today, 2016; 26 (3): 4 DOI: 10.1130/GSATG270A.1
Walker, M. , Johnsen, S. , Rasmussen, S. O., Popp, T. , Steffensen, J. , Gibbard, P. , Hoek, W. , Lowe, J. , Andrews, J. , Björck, S. , Cwynar, L. C., Hughen, K. , Kershaw, P. , Kromer, B. , Litt, T. , Lowe, D. J., Nakagawa, T. , Newnham, R. and Schwander, J. (2009), “Formal definition and dating of the GSSP (Global Stratotype Section and Point) for the base of the Holocene using the Greenland NGRIP ice core, and selected auxiliary records”. J. Quaternary Sci., 24: 3-17. doi:10.1002/jqs.1227
What’s more fake than an Anthropocene Epoch?
An Anthropocene Era.
The Anthropocene Era really would have been truly fabulous… for its brevity.
- Paleozoic Era: 541 to 252 million years ago, 289 million years.
- Mesozoic Era: 252 to 66 million years ago, 186 million years.
- Cenozoic Era: 66 million to 73 years ago, 65.999927 million years.
- Anthropocene Era: 1945-2018, 0.000073 million years.
I really couldn’t make this sort of schist up if I was trying.