The influence of the mankind on the environment is so great that scientists have started gathering together to try to persuade authorities to change the name of the era we are living in from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Dr. Colin Waters from the British Geographical Society explains why this is so important.
We have been living in the Holocene era for about 11,700 years. The end of that era was marked by massive changes in the environment brought about by mankind. The evidence of huge change to our environment is statistically evident from scientific sources all across the world. If the name of our present era is changed to the Anthropocene, it means that environmentalists will already be starting from a standpoint that significant damage has been made, and we need to change it. This could change the whole way we look at climate change, and what we do about it. A meeting of scientists from all over the world was recently held in Berlin to discuss the situation and make recommendations.
What exactly has changed environmentally to warrant a change in the names of the epochs?
Dr. Colin Waters: First of all, we are going towards the mid-20thcentury change to represent the Anthropocene. That’s not a university group or the working group even, but there is a consensus moving towards that direction. And so, you look at the middle of the 20th century. A lot of things started happening that we didn’t have before, or at least a smaller signature beforehand.
If you just took things like the physical nature of the sediments that we are creating, the human-made deposits, if you look at plastic – hardly present before mid-20th century, it has now become almost universal. We are producing it at such huge volumes, that it is present not only within our landfill sites, it is distributed across the countryside, but also even in the oceans as well. So, that is a new signature you didn’t have before the middle of the 20th century.
Things like concrete is another one. Before the mid-20th century concrete was being used on a very small scale, but now it is the building material choice. So, you find huge amounts of concrete within the built environment, but then, of course, as the cities are being reconstructed, the foundations of a lot of the buildings are then composed of concrete. So, these are the physical deposits.
But there is also just the volume of materials being moved around and the capabilities of the equipment that we have now. You can extract huge amounts of mineral resources, you can then move those around the planet much more extensively, which is that on average every person on the planet is responsible for at least 22 tons of material being extracted, just for the minerals and there is the spoil that is associated with them.
So, huge amounts! I mean, it is significantly more material being moved around the planet now by mankind, than by all the rivers on the planet. That means that we are one of the major, if not the major geological force. We consider ourselves to be a geological force on the planet
Will agreements reached at the Berlin meeting have any legal status?
Dr. Colin Waters: No, because it was our very first meeting. We’ve set up since 2009 and pretty all of our communications are via emails. And what we are trying to do is to publish a series of scientific papers that formulate our ideas. It is an evolving thing. We’ve sort of changed our opinions as we've started to get more and more information. And I’d point out as well that we, as an organization have no funding either. We are just a group of interested people who want to forward the science. So, it makes it quite difficult to grab and collect new data.
We are very much reliant on the fact that there is a lot of published information. And we are going through that, as it is being published and trying to pull what we think is relevant. The great thing for us is that there is a huge amount of data being collected, because people are monitoring the environment all the time. And it may be a biologist or a chemist who are looking at the monitoring of a coastal section somewhere in the USA or Russia.
They are not doing it to try and define the Anthropocene, they are just looking at the potential contamination of an ash tree, say. But to us, that is a very vital information and we want to pull that into our interpretation. So, there is a huge data resource that can mine to come up with this decision, without having to go and collect it ourselves.
Who decides what era we are living in?
Dr. Colin Waters: Part of the problem we have is that when Paul Crutzen came up with the name, when he’s determined the Anthropocene – the “cene”-bit represents an epoch. He just used that suffix to represent the epoch. So, we are almost starting at that level and trying to decide whether that is justifiable. And of course, what you do is that you compare that with the previous epochs, smaller subdivisions of ages or stages that seem to have less significant changes in the environment or the changes of signatures.
So, what we are doing is comparing like for like. We are looking specifically at the Anthropocene. The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy are the people who actually initiated our working group. They asked, set it up and came up with this decision. So, we would report to them. They are responsible for the last 2.5 million years of geological time. And so, they have to then decide if they wish to have that as the formal unit, how that fits in with the existing nomenclature for the quaternary.
So, ultimately, they would have that call. But it then goes up at least two more levels to the International Union of Geological Scientists, who, again, have a group of voting members who will ultimately decide whether to ratify the term. It is their final call.
And then it depends on the government involved, whether they want to recognize that or not and the textbooks are updated and so on.
Dr. Colin Waters: Obviously, there is a standard of geological time and everyone is expected to follow that on. So, if the IUGS ratify the term, them it officially becomes part of the geological time scale and it is then assumed that all scientific publications would use that terminology without definition.