MAC: Mines and Communities

We have entered a new era of unprecedented peril

Published by MAC on 2016-01-08
Source: Science (2016-01-08)

A scientific report, just published, provides compelling evidence of "functional changes" in the Earth's survival systems going well beyond earlier analyses of threats from global climate change, soil, air and water pollution - compellng though these have undoubtedly been.

In fact, the scientists go so far as stating that we have all - and not just the human species on our planet - entered a new era of unprecendented and impending peril, which they dub the "Anthoprocene".

It's one marked by many dramatic, epocal, changes over the past fifty years to the previous "Holocene" system which sustained the earth.

Among these is: "The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete" that "coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion".

There are, says the report, in lake sediments: "[U]nprecedented combinations of plastics, fly ash, radionuclides, metals, pesticides, reactive nitrogen, and consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations".


The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene


January 2016


Human activity is leaving a pervasive and persistent signature on Earth. Vigorous debate continues about whether this warrants recognition as a new geologic time unit known as the Anthropocene. We review anthropogenic markers of functional changes in the Earth system through the stratigraphic record. The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century. Rates of sea-level rise and the extent of human perturbation of the climate system exceed Late Holocene changes. Biotic changes include species invasions worldwide and accelerating rates of extinction. These combined signals render the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs.


Colin N. Waters1,*,
Jan Zalasiewicz2,
Colin Summerhayes3,
Anthony D. Barnosky4,
Clément Poirier5,
Agnieszka Gałuszka6,
Alejandro Cearreta7,
Matt Edgeworth8,
Erle C. Ellis9,
Michael Ellis1,
Catherine Jeandel10,
Reinhold Leinfelder11,
J. R. McNeill12,
Daniel deB. Richter13,
Will Steffen14,
James Syvitski15,
Davor Vidas16,
Michael Wagreich17,
Mark Williams2,
An Zhisheng18,
Jacques Grinevald19,
Eric Odada20,
Naomi Oreskes21,
Alexander P. Wolfe22

1 British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK.
2 Department of Geology, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK.
3 Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, Lensfield Road, Cambridge CB2 1ER, UK.
4 Department of Integrative Biology, Museum of Paleontology, and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California–Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
5 Morphodynamique Continentale et Côtière, Université de Caen Normandie, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), 24 Rue des Tilleuls, F-14000 Caen, France.
6 Geochemistry and the Environment Division, Institute of Chemistry, Jan Kochanowski University, 15G Świętokrzyska Street, 25-406 Kielce, Poland.
7 Departamento de Estratigrafía y Paleontología, Facultad de Ciencia y Tecnología, Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Apartado 644, 48080 Bilbao, Spain.
8 School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK.
9 Department of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland–Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA.
10 Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (CNRS, Centre National d'Études Spatiales, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Université Paul Sabatier), 14 Avenue Edouard Belin, 31400 Toulouse, France.
11 Department of Geological Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, Malteserstraße 74-100/D, 12249 Berlin, Germany.
12 Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA.
13 Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Box 90233, Durham, NC 27516, USA.
14 The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia.
15 Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado–Boulder, Box 545, Boulder, CO 80309-0545, USA.
16 Marine Affairs and Law of the Sea Programme, The Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Lysaker, Norway.
17 Department of Geodynamics and Sedimentology, University of Vienna, A-1090 Vienna, Austria.
18 State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xi'an 710061, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China.
19 Institut de Hautes Études Internationales et du Développement, Chemin Eugène Rigot 2, 1211 Genève 11, Switzerland.
20 Department of Geology, University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya.
21 Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
22 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada.

*Corresponding author. E-mail: cnw{at}

Evidence of an Anthropocene epoch

Humans are undoubtedly altering many geological processes on Earth—and have been for some time. But what is the stratigraphic evidence for officially distinguishing this new human-dominated time period, termed the “Anthropocene,” from the preceding Holocene epoch? Waters et al. review climatic, biological, and geochemical signatures of human activity in sediments and ice cores. Combined with deposits of new materials and radionuclides, as well as human-caused modification of sedimentary processes, the Anthropocene stands alone stratigraphically as a new epoch beginning sometime in the mid–20th century.

Structured Abstract


Humans are altering the planet, including long-term global geologic processes, at an increasing rate. Any formal recognition of an Anthropocene epoch in the geological time scale hinges on whether humans have changed the Earth system sufficiently to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice that is distinct from that of the Holocene epoch. Proposals for marking the start of the Anthropocene include an “early Anthropocene” beginning with the spread of agriculture and deforestation; the Columbian Exchange of Old World and New World species; the Industrial Revolution at ~1800 CE; and the mid-20th century “Great Acceleration” of population growth and industrialization.


Recent anthropogenic deposits contain new minerals and rock types, reflecting rapid global dissemination of novel materials including elemental aluminum, concrete, and plastics that form abundant, rapidly evolving “technofossils.” Fossil fuel combustion has disseminated black carbon, inorganic ash spheres, and spherical carbonaceous particles worldwide, with a near-synchronous global increase around 1950. Anthropogenic sedimentary fluxes have intensified, including enhanced erosion caused by deforestation and road construction. Widespread sediment retention behind dams has amplified delta subsidence.

Geochemical signatures include elevated levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and pesticide residues, as well as increased 207/206Pb ratios from leaded gasoline, starting between ~1945 and 1950. Soil nitrogen and phosphorus inventories have doubled in the past century because of increased fertilizer use, generating widespread signatures in lake strata and nitrate levels in Greenland ice that are higher than at any time during the previous 100,000 years.

Detonation of the Trinity atomic device at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945 initiated local nuclear fallout from 1945 to 1951, whereas thermonuclear weapons tests generated a clear global signal from 1952 to 1980, the so-called “bomb spike” of excess 14C, 239Pu, and other artificial radionuclides that peaks in 1964.

Atmospheric CO2 and CH4 concentrations depart from Holocene and even Quaternary patterns starting at ~1850, and more markedly at ~1950, with an associated steep fall in δ13C that is captured by tree rings and calcareous fossils. An average global temperature increase of 0.6o to 0.9oC from 1900 to the present, occurring predominantly in the past 50 years, is now rising beyond the Holocene variation of the past 14,000 years, accompanied by a modest enrichment of δ18O in Greenland ice starting at ~1900. Global sea levels increased at 3.2 ± 0.4 mm/year from 1993 to 2010 and are now rising above Late Holocene rates. Depending on the trajectory of future anthropogenic forcing, these trends may reach or exceed the envelope of Quaternary interglacial conditions.

Biologic changes also have been pronounced. Extinction rates have been far above background rates since 1500 and increased further in the 19th century and later; in addition, species assemblages have been altered worldwide by geologically unprecedented transglobal species invasions and changes associated with farming and fishing, permanently reconfiguring Earth’s biological trajectory.


These novel stratigraphic signatures support the formalization of the Anthropocene at the epoch level, with a lower boundary (still to be formally identified) suitably placed in the mid-20th century. Formalization is a complex question because, unlike with prior subdivisions of geological time, the potential utility of a formal Anthropocene reaches well beyond the geological community. It also expresses the extent to which humanity is driving rapid and widespread changes to the Earth system that will variously persist and potentially intensify into the future.


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