Proposed Anthropocene Epoch Seeks Formal Approval

A proposed Anthropocene epoch will be reviewed this month and possibly approved by the end of this year. Find out which sites are contending to be the epoch’s “golden spike” and the prospects of its final approval.

I probably first heard about the divisions in the geologic time scale from watching that “modern stone age family,” The Flintstones. I realize that program wasn’t exactly scientifically rigorous. Humans and dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time, for just one example.

Even so, our generation got used to picking up terms like “Paleozoic” and “Precambrian” from science fiction and pop culture. We learned about the Jursassic period at the movies, and maybe even a few divisions in science class.

So, I found it inspiring around the turn of the new millenium to hear about some newly proposed geologic divisions by reading the works of Thomas Berry. They’re called the Anthropocene and the Ecozoic.

Profound Influence Humans Have Had on Ecosphere

The idea of a proposed Anthropocene epoch comes from the profound influence humans have on the ecosphere. We’ve had a powerful propensity to develop and modify our environments, although not always wisely or well.

The Ecozoic era is more aspirational than scientific. It reflects the optimism of Berry and his followers that we’re on the verge of an era of humans integrating harmoniously with the Earth’s natural order.

Officially, geologists still call our present geological epoch the Holocene. It started at the end of the last glacial period 11,650 years ago which ended the previous Pleistocene epoch.

Team of Scientists from Various Fields

An organization called the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) decides these things. Back in 2009, they set up a team of scientists from various fields called the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG).

The AWG’s job is to recommend if science really needs the proposed Anthropocene epoch. If it does, the working group’s other task was to propose a formal date from which this new time division runs.

In 2016, the working group found the proposed Anthropocene epoch appropriate. They narrowed the start date down to the early 1950s, when humans started producing plastics, testing nuclear weapons and intensifying their fossil fuel use.

Looking for Location of “Golden Spike”

The team now needs to nail that recommendation down. The geological community requires a more specific date. Further they’re looking for something they call a “golden spike.”

The golden spike for a geologic epoch is a location. Just as a golden spike marks the place where two railways connect, scientists choose one spot as the ideal sample source to represent global changes defining the connection between two divisions.

Last week, a story in Science updated readers on the proposal approval process. On May 18, the AWG will hold a forum in Berlin where researchers will advocate for each of twelve proposed sites.

Spikes in Plutonium, Ash, Microplactics, or Carbon Levels

Some of the traits the AWG looks for are plutonium levels, industrial ash, microplastics, and nitrogen or carbon levels from air pollution. Colin Waters chairs the AWG.

He explains that the process is quite daunting. “Starting from scratch, you’ve got the whole world to play with,” he told Paul Voosen of Science.

There are golden spike candidates all over the globe. Lake bottoms make good samples, and Crawford Lake here in Ontario is a contender. Micro-paleontologist Francine McCarthy of Brock University told Science, “We have a really ideal site.”

Golden Spike Candidantes All Over the Globe

There’s also a lake site in a protected forest in northeastern China called Sihailongwan Lake. Some other options involve sediment under oceans.

Proposed marine sites include the Baltic Sea and Beppu Bay, Japan. In the Gulf of Mexico, a research team is proposing a coral reef off Louisiana. Another potential golden spike is a peat bog near a Polish mountain.

Not everyone is sold on this proposed Anthropocene epoch. A body called the Subcomission on Quartenary Stratigraphy (SQS) still has to approve the whole proposal.

Final Approval Far From a Slam Dunk

After that, the proposal goes to the ICS executive committee. The final say comes from the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). Despite support for the new epoch, it’s approval is far from a slam dunk.

Jan Zalasiewicz from the University of Leicester leads the SQS. He explains, “There’s no guarantee that the Anthropocene will be agreed upon. There are influential stratigraphers who are very uncomfortable with a formalized Anthropocene.”

The idea of the Anthropocene, as well as the Ecozoic don’t arise solely from science. They’re also part of the New Story that Humanity is telling itself about our place in the world.

Earth is Not Merely a Resource for Us to Exploit

We as a species are coming to grasp three important lessons. The first is that we’re part of the Earth; it’s not a resource to exploit.

Secondly, our adverse impact on the Earth was far worse than we’d realized over the past century. Finally, Humanity needs to harmonize with Nature to survive.

Otherwise, this proposed Anthropocene epoch won’t matter. These revelations won’t change regardless of the formal outcome at the IUGS.

Some Scientists Say Approach “Has Not Been Open-Minded”

These non-scientific origins make many scientists object to the approach. Stanley Finney of California State University, Long Beach told Science that the AWG “has not been open-minded.”

In Professor Finney’s view, the AWG’s approach was like the archer who shot the arrow first, then drew the target around it. He feels that the team began from the proposed Anthropocene epoch, then sought supporting evidence.

If true, that would be the opposite of how the scientific method should work. Also, Professor Finney feels that a period that started barely a lifetime ago is too short for an epoch.

One Lifetime Is Too Short for an Epoch

In Professor Finney’s mind, the Anthropocene is like the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. Profound as that incident was, science calls it an event, not an epoch. Still, he says he won’t stand in the proposed Anthropocene epoch’s way if the the approval process is open and compliant.

No doubt these objections will be aired as teams make their cases and deliberations proceed. The IUGS plans to announce its final decision by the end of 2022, at which point we’ll find out if we’re living in a new epoch or sticking it out here in the Holocene.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Bogs, lakebeds, and sea floors compete to become Anthropocene’s ‘golden spike’
The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene
Biodiversity Always Wins
Mass Extinction, Past and Present
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – A Review


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