When was the Dawn of the Anthropocene?

August 30, 2016

New conversation about exactly when the Anthropocene – a new geological age in which Man has been the primary driver of planetary conditions.

Current discussion is around the idea that a “golden spike”, or marker, will be the agreed upon event that future generations will fix as the new age’s beginning. Will that marker be radioactive isotopes from the nuclear age? or bits of indestructible plastic in sedimentary rock?
A growing group of scientists maintain that the real impacts of human civilization on climate go back even much further, to the beginning of agriculture, as Steve Vavrus outlines above.


Humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – needs to be declared, according to an official expert group who presented the recommendation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town on Monday.

The new epoch should begin about 1950, the experts said, and was likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration.

The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.


Below, John Cook and I interviewed Bill Ruddiman himself on the issue:

Guardian again:

Prof Chris Rapley, a climate scientist at University College London and former director of the Science Museum in London said: “The Anthropocene marks a new period in which our collective activities dominate the planetary machinery.

“Since the planet is our life support system – we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship – interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. If you or I were crew on a smaller spacecraft, it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, fodder and climate control. But the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.” Rapley is not part of the WGA.

Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and former president of the Royal Society, said that the dawn of the Anthropocene was a significant moment. “The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere,” he said.


One word. Plastics.


The hunt is now on for a “golden spike”, as it is known – the marker that scientists can point to years hence – perhaps millions of years hence – and say, “There! That’s the start of the Anthropocene Epoch.”

And it would likely be an “epoch”, said Dr Waters, meaning the current phase of Earth history known as the Holocene has terminated. We would, however, remain within the Quaternary Period and the Cenozoic Era, which are higher rankings in the division of time.

Ten members of the 35-strong working group believe the best spike will probably be plutonium fallout from bomb tests in the 1950s, to be found in marine or lake sediments, ice layers or perhaps even speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites).

Others on the panel, however, think there could be better spikes than the radionuclide. Counter-proposals include remnant plastics or some kind of carbon signature that signifies the rapid rise in CO2 emissions.

Nonetheless, a clear majority of group members (28 of them) accept that whichever marker is chosen, it should reflect events on Earth around the 1950s.

This is the beginning of what is often referred to as the “great acceleration”, when human impacts on our planet suddenly intensified and became global in extent.

George Carlin may have gotten it right, after all.


5 Responses to “When was the Dawn of the Anthropocene?”

  1. Ron Voisin Says:

    Well…there you have it. Thank heavens we’ve been burning fossil fuels and are not on our way to an ice-age.

    • Lionel Smith Says:

      I made a comment elsewhere raising Ruddiman as one who explained where the start of the Anthropocene should be marked.

      • addledlady Says:

        I suspect it might relate to many people’s original scientific training how likely they are to be attracted to his approach. The bloke presenting the video below is a geologist/ astronomer, Ruddiman’s first qualifications were in geology.

        Britt is quite definite about human influence on climate starting with an initial burst of land clearing for agriculture which halted the downward trend in temperatures 7-8000 years ago and then, just as that effect was declining a few thousand years later, got re-energised by the expansion of rice paddies – and the associated methane on top of the initial hit from clearing – onto hillside terraces. I haven’t checked the whole tape for exactly when he states it, but he points out that there’s a very neat correlation between the accumulated atmospheric “load” of CO2 and the total amount of vegetation cleared for various agricultural purposes before industrialisation really got going.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    An interesting discussion, and surprising that so few have commented. IMO, the argument that the Anthropocene began with the rise of agriculture is the best one, and the start of the “fossil fuel age”, the “atomic age”, and the “technology and toxic chemicals age” are just markers along the way that upped the stakes in the crap shoot for life on Earth that the Anthropocene represents.

    I myself am far more interested in when the Anthropocene might end—-Nature is swinging a bat in the warmup circle and always bats last.

    And yes, George Carlin DID get it right. I have touted Dumanoski’s The End of the Long Summer many times—-a short and sweet book that places the Anthropocene in the life span of the Earth better than anyone else I have read.

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