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Welcome to Earth's new era, the Anthropocene - "epoch of humans"

In 2009, a secluded group of scientists embarked on a monumental task. This task, ordered by Earth’s geological chronology authorities, was to answer three crucial questions concerning the Anthropocene – a proposed geological epoch characterized by humanity’s enormous impact on Earth. 

Today, the experts finally reveal their findings, including the exact location deemed ground-zero for the Anthropocene epoch.

Escalation in human influence 

The initial query was hypothetical yet profound: In a million years, would extraterrestrial beings examining Earth’s sediment and layered rocks distinguish a uniquely human signature that signified a clear geological boundary? 

Following their comprehensive investigation, the Anthropocene Working Group affirmed that human activities have indeed propelled the planet out of the stability of the Holocene epoch, which originated around 11,700 years ago with the termination of the last ice age. 

According to the experts, the planet is growing disturbingly warm, and its life-support systems are increasingly malfunctioning.

The researchers propose that the commencement of the “epoch of humans,” a concept first introduced by Chemistry Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2002, should be identified in the mid-20th century. 

This era marked a dramatic escalation in various indicators of human influence, such as greenhouse gas concentrations, microplastic pollution, invasive species, and radioactive traces from atomic bomb testing. Collectively, these human-induced changes have been recognized by scientists as the Great Acceleration.

The golden spike

A significant part of the Working Group’s findings revolved around identifying the “golden spike” – a geological repository of evidence, such as a lake deposit, coral reef, or ice core, that most profoundly exemplifies the Anthropocene epoch. 

The final decision on the location of this “golden spike” will be announced in a joint press conference on Tuesday at the Max Planck Society in Berlin and at a gathering of the Working Group scientists in Lille, France.

However, these conclusions are just recommendations at this stage. Their legitimacy will be scrutinized by the stern, skeptical scientists of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). Many involved in the study believe the chances of their findings gaining acceptance are quite slender.

Some geologists argue that the Anthropocene epoch does not meet the technical criteria for inclusion in the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, the official 4.6-billion-year timeline of the planet. This is despite their acknowledgement of a significant deviation from historical geological patterns.

A paradigm shift 

This proposed shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene epoch is an invitation for us to critically examine humanity’s devastating impact on the planet.

For the first time in Earth’s history, a single species has managed to not only dramatically alter the planet’s morphology, chemistry, and biology – but also to recognize the extent of these changes.

Paul Crutzen, who was awarded a Nobel prize for identifying the human-made chemicals that have been decimating the Earth’s protective ozone layer, anticipated that the conception and reality of the Anthropocene epoch would concentrate attention on the challenges that lie ahead. “It could well be a paradigm shift in scientific thinking,” Crutzen noted at a symposium in 2011.

Today, many scientists who explore the intersectionality of the Earth’s systems echo Crutzen’s thoughts.

“It’s the recognition that, ‘Oh my God, we have tipping points. Oh my God, the Holocene is the only state that can support us,'” says Johan Rockstrom, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The paradigm shift is the realization that we’re leaving the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene.”

Still up for debate

However, several scientists remain unconvinced, including influential decision-makers lobbying against the formal acceptance of the Anthropocene epoch.

Phil Gibbard, Secretary of the ICS, has proposed calling the Anthropocene an “event” encompassing millennia of human environmental alterations, as he believes the conditions prompting glaciation haven’t changed.

Jan Zalasiewicz, who led the Anthropocene Working Group through a maze of evidence and a minefield of resistance for over a decade, believes this classification is inadequate.

If the concept is not formally accepted, he argues, it suggests that the Holocene conditions, which allowed human civilization to thrive, are still intact. “Clearly they are not,” says Zalasiewicz.

If the term “Anthropocene” continues to signify different things to different people, it risks losing its significance and eventually fading into oblivion.

Ultimately, as Zalasiewicz explains, we must follow the evidence. “Science is basically trying to establish what’s real as opposed to what’s not,” he says. “And the Anthropocene is real.”

More about geological epochs

Earth’s dynamic geological history spans billions of years. It organizes into a hierarchical system of eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages, telling the story of the planet’s transformation over time.

Among these, geological epochs — subdivisions of periods in the geologic time scale — yield fascinating insights into the Earth’s development. We will delve into the details of these epochs, spotlighting their defining characteristics and major events.

The Precambrian

Encompassing nearly 90% of Earth’s history, is not officially divided into epochs. But it sets the stage for the creation of an environment hospitable for life. It marks the birth of our planet, its cooling down, the formation of its crust, and the emergence of simple life forms.

The Cambrian epoch

The Cambrian ushered in the Paleozoic era, an era of dramatic evolutionary innovation. It marks the appearance of most major animal phyla and a significant rise in atmospheric oxygen, a period famously known as the “Cambrian explosion.”

Ordovician epoch

During this time, marine life diversified, and the first primitive plants emerged on land. The epoch concluded with a mass extinction event, resulting from drastic climate change and a drop in sea levels.

The Silurian epoch

Here we witness the first evidence of life on land, with jawed and bony fish dominating the oceans, and primitive plants and arthropods beginning to colonize land.

The Devonian epoch

Also called the “Age of Fish,” the Devonian featured the rise of fish diversity. It saw the emergence of the first amphibians, the rise of trees, and the formation of the first forests.

The Carboniferous epoch

This period is split into the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian in North America. It fostered extensive swampy forests, leading to the formation of extensive coal deposits. The first winged insects and amniote vertebrates emerged during this epoch.

The Permian epoch

This was the last of the Paleozoic era. During this period, diversification occurred of early amniotes into the ancestral groups of mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs, and archosaurs. This epoch ended in the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, wiping out nearly 96% of marine species.

The Triassic epoch

The Triassic marked the dawn of the Mesozoic era, also known as the “Age of Dinosaurs.” The first true mammals and dinosaurs appeared during this epoch. The Triassic epoch concluded with another mass extinction event.

The Jurassic epoch

This period featured a world dominated by dinosaurs. It saw the first birds and a diversification of dinosaurs. The continental drift gathered pace, breaking the supercontinent Pangaea apart.

The Cretaceous epoch

The Cretaceous was the final epoch of the Mesozoic era. It saw flowering plants dominate the world, with the evolution of bees aiding their pollination. Dinosaurs diversified, and the first snakes evolved. This epoch ended with a mass extinction event that erased most dinosaur species.

The Paleogene epoch

This period heralded the Cenozoic era, often called the “Age of Mammals.” Dinosaurs’ extinction led to the rise of mammals, and flowering plants diversified further.

The Neogene epoch

The Neogene witnessed the evolution of many modern mammalian families. Grasslands and kelp forests appeared, and apes evolved during this epoch.

The Quaternary epoch

This is the epoch immediately prior to the Anthropocene, in which we live today. It started 2.6 million years ago. It encompasses the entirety of human history, from the first hominins to the development of human civilizations. This epoch is defined by recurring glacial periods and a significant rise in biodiversity.

Understanding Earth’s geological epochs is akin to reading the chapters of a vast, intricate book. Each epoch has played a critical role in shaping the planet as we know it today, hosting unique life forms and witnessing significant climatic and geological shifts. As we continue to probe these epochs, we unravel more about Earth’s past, gain insights into its present, and predict its possible future.


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