Welcome to the Anthropocene. A planet of high sea levels, carbon dioxide concentrations at their highest since 2.6million years ago, and a distinct lack of biodiversity. All caused by human activity.
Although this sounds like the introduction to the next Steven Spielberg disaster film, it’s possible this could be the planet we are living on right now. Human life has undoubtedly changed our planet beyond recognition, from the movement of species across continents, to urbanization and deforestation. But have we changed our planet enough to warrant declaring a new epoch in time? That’s the gargantuan decision a 30 strong group of experts have been charged with deciding.
An epoch is a subdivision of a period which is a division of an era. We are currently defined as being in the Holocene epoch of the Quarternary period of the Cenozoic era. However in the year 2,000 Paul Cutzen, a Dutch chemist proposed that we had moved out of our Holocene epoch into the “Anthropocene” as humans now dominate the geologic-scale which is often used to define previous epochs.
The Earth is about four and a billion years old and throughout its history it has suffered five mass extinctions, caused by a variety of reasons all mirrored throughout the fossil record. In other words you can effectively look at the sediment layers and the fossils preserved within them and see mass extinctions, whereupon the fossils of a taxonomic group are prevalent until the sediment changes and then the fossils are no more.
Modern humans have existed on planet Earth for a mere geological blink of the eye – 200,000 years. How could our impact be so great it will be widely visible in the fossil record hundreds of millennia from now, long after humans have ceased to exist?
The geological timescale is created from a range of upheavals. These include mass extinctions, changes in the atmosphere which led to the evolution of complex multicellular life, ice ages and changing sea levels. It is evident that human activity is enacting each of these changes within the modern era.
Humans have modified up to a half of the land surface of the planet,through agriculture, deforestation and urbanization. Crutzen claimed that through altering the composition of the atmosphere through a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation humans had ushered in the anthropocene epoch. Not only this but in the future a “biostratigraphical signal” will be evident within sediment layers. This will be caused by the redistribution of species from human activities as well as the mass extinction in which we find ourselves teetering on the verge of. Not only will it be apparent in the fossil record, but all future evolution will come from the surviving/relocated species.
Experts are to make their decision in 2016, and although the anthropocene does have its critics, the upfront evidence is certainly overwhelming.
For More Information:
Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History. Great Britain: Bloomsbury.
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