Anthropocene Epoch: The period when humans started significantly altering the planet to be decided in 2021
An ongoing debate in the scientific community is the timeline for the Anthropocene, a proposed epoch on the Geological Time Scale, dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems. While some have argued that the starting date for the epoch should be the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution 12,000–15,000 years ago, some have put that date as recent as the Trinity test in 1945.
With this in mind, a panel of scientists voted last week to designate the new geological epoch, and the Anthropocene or the Age of Man will be going into a vote in 2021 to decide the exact moment in history when this new age will begin.
The decision to find the start date, as such, falls on the 34-member Anthropocene Working Group (AWG).
The decision made by the panel will end up marking a crucial step towards formally defining a brand new piece of geological record. The idea of marking this new epoch in the Geological Time Scale has been fiercely debated within the scientific community, and soon it would become part of history books worldwide.
The origins of the proposed epoch is likely to be dated back to the middle of the 20th Century - when humans began uncontrollably damaging the planet. Experts are currently working on deciding the beginning of the epoch and the particular geological feature that best describes the beginning.
The hunt for this "golden spike", which is technically called a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), will possibly include the Hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s which created so much radioactive material that it is now part of the geological record across the world.
Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of AWG and a geologist at the University of Leicester, UK, spoke to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) and said that the team is currently looking at ten different sites of finely-preserved sedimentary strata from around the world to determine the golden spike.
He said that this also includes material from lake and sea floors, peat bogs, polar snow and ice layers, coral skeletons and cave deposits.
Zalasiewicz said: "They are all promising contenders, and we have much work to do on them yet."
The team also noted in their document that the boom of chicken farming and the increased incineration of fossil fuel are also potential signs of the Anthropocene. Most of the panel members are also expected to meet in Berlin sometime next week in order to plan out the next two years of research.
Of the 10 sites being researched to find the spike, the group hopes that at least one of them will make it to the proposal as a viable beginning to mark the epoch.
The results of the initial vote to name the new age in history were not all that surprising, especially considering that it was more or less confirmed by an informal vote taken at the 2016 International Geological Congress in Cape Town.
That decision, however, has spurred on the panellists to find a geological marker that signals the end of the Holocene epoch.
The panel will be submitting a formal proposal for the new age to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, an organization that oversees the official geological time chart, in 2021.
When asked what some of the points they will be putting forward in the proposal in 2021, Zalasiewicz said: "We will be including data to show how well different types of human impact - physical, chemical and biological - are preserved geologically within these strata."
He then added that they will also include how well this data can be traced to give a picture of a potential Holocene-Anthropocene boundary.
The AWG was established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, which in itself is a part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy.
Zalasiewicz also told us that it is very difficult to predict when the new epoch will come to an end after it is officially named. He did add, however, that the changes "associated with the Anthropocene, including of climate, sea level and biosphere, are likely to have very long-lasting effects, for thousands and even millions of years to come".
After the AWG makes its formal proposal, it will be considered by a few more groups in the International Commission on Stratigraphy. If the proposal is able to make it past that group then the final nod will come from the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences.