Anthropocene Defined

Geologically speaking, we are either in or have recently left the Holocene Epoch, which began some 12,000 years ago as the Paleolithic Ice Age receded. The Anthropocene Working Group is a research group of scientists and geologists convened by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy to gather evidence to determine whether we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene (from anthro, for “human,” and cene, for “recent”).

The term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to describe the massive and irreversible effects that humans have had on the planet. These include changes in (i) erosion and sediment transport associated with a variety of anthropogenic processes such as colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming; (ii) the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with significant anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals; (iii) environmental conditions generated by these perturbations which include global warming, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic 'dead zones'; (iv) the biosphere both on land and in the sea with resulting habitat loss, predation, species invasions and the physical/chemical changes noted above.1

The current most widely accepted proposed start date for the Anthropocene Epoch is mid-20th century, the beginning of “The Great Acceleration,” and the start of the nuclear age.

Some geological Epochs or Eras have ended dramatically, such as the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago, when a massive asteroid struck the planet, resulting in the extinction of the dinosaurs and over 50% of the world's species.

We humans may have become the impact-equivalent of that asteroid.

The K-T boundary. Photograph by Jennifer Baichwal.

Latest From the Anthropocene Working Group

Petrifying Earth Process: The Stratigraphic Imprint of Key Earth System Parameters in the Anthropocene

August 2, 2017

By Jan Zalasiewicz, Will Steffen, Reinhold Leinfelder, Mark Williams, Colin Waters | Theory, Culture & Society Abstract The Anthropocene concept arose within the Earth System science (ESS) community, albeit explicitly as a geological (stratigraphical) time term. Its current analysis by the stratigraphical community, as a potential formal addition to the Geological Time Scale, necessitates comparison of the methodologies and patterns of…

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The Anthropocene: Scientists respond to criticisms of a new geological epoch

March 23, 2017

Press Release A team of academics led by the University of Leicester has responded to criticisms of the proposal to formalise a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. Geological critics of a formalised Anthropocene have alleged that the idea did not arise from geology; that there is simply not enough physical evidence for it as…

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Found: Thousands of Man-Made Minerals—Another Argument for the Anthropocene

March 1, 2017

By Shannon Hall | Scientific American  Humans have dramatically changed Earth’s surface. Satellite images show New York City’s sparkling lights at night and the Great Wall of China during the day. But we have also produced signatures in the strata beneath our feat that can’t be seen so readily, like the plastic that litters the ocean…

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Anthropocene: its stratigraphic basis

January 18, 2017

By Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin Waters & Martin J. Head | Nature, Correspondence  As officers of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG; J.Z. and C.W.) and chair of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS; M.J.H.) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), we note that the AWG has less power than Erle Ellis and colleagues imply (Nature 540, 192–193; 2016). Its role…

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Involve social scientists in defining the Anthropocene

January 13, 2017

By Erle Ellis, Mark Maslin, Nicole Boivin & Andrew Bauer | Nature Three dozen academics are planning to rewrite Earth’s history. The Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (of which one of us, E.E., is a member) announced in August that over the next three years it will divide Earth’s story into two parts: one in which humans…

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REPLY: Zalasiewicz et al. Comment

December 1, 2016

By Stanley C. Finney and Lucy E. Edwards | GSA Today  We thank Jan Zalasiewicz and his 25 co-authors for their consid- ered response. We are in complete agreement with the following two major statements: “All chronostratigraphic units are defined by their base and char- acterized by their content;” and “There are clearly societal and political…

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COMMENT: Finney & Edwards Article

December 1, 2016

By Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin N. Waters, Alexander P. Wolfe, et al. | GSA Today The article about the Anthropocene by Finney and Edwards (GSA Today, v. 26, no. 3–4, p. 4–10) is part of a wider critical commentary we have addressed (Zalasiewicz et al., 2017), and is an essential and welcome part of its analysis. We…

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Can Humans Go From Unintended Global Warming to Climate By Design?

October 18, 2016

  By Andrew C. Revkin | Dot Earth, The New York Times Geoengineering is in the wind more and more these days, particularly the use of sun-blocking aerosols as a cheap, temporary counterweight to greenhouse-gas-driven global warming. In pondering the plausibility or desirability of such a tool, it might be useful to start with a thought experiment: 1) Suppose…

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What the ‘sixth extinction’ will look like in the oceans: The largest species die off first

September 14, 2016

By Chris Mooney | The Washington Post | September 14, 2016 We mostly can’t see it around us, and too few of us seem to care — but nonetheless, scientists are increasingly convinced that the world is barreling towards what has been called a “sixth mass extinction” event. Simply put, species are going extinct at a rate…

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The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age

August 29, 2016

By Damian Carrington | The Guardian | August 29, 2016 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…

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Atomic bombs and oil addiction herald Earth’s new epoch: The Anthropocene

August 24, 2016

By Paul Voosen | Science Magazine | August 24, 2016 Just after World War II, when the atomic bombs fell and our thirst for coal and oil became a full-blown addiction, Earth entered the Anthropocene, a new geologic time when humanity’s environmental reach left a mark in sediments worldwide. That’s the majority conclusion of the Anthropocene Working Group, a…

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Define the Anthropocene in terms of the whole Earth

August 17, 2016

By Clive Hamilton | Nature | August 17, 2016 Do we live in the Anthropocene? Officially, not yet — although the debate about whether to declare a new geological epoch will resurface later this month at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. The concept of the Anthropocene has become well known and is much…

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‘Pristine’ landscapes haven’t existed for thousands of years due to human activity

June 7, 2016

Science Bulletin | June 7, 2016 ‘Pristine’ landscapes simply do not exist anywhere in the world today and, in most cases, have not existed for at least several thousand years, says a new study in the journal,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS). An exhaustive review of archaeological data from the last 30 years provides…

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Dawn of the Anthropocene: 5 Ways We Know Humans Have Triggered a New Geological Epoch

March 19, 2016

By Jan A. Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams | Alternet | March 19, 2016 Is the Anthropocene real? That is, the vigorously debated concept of a new geological epoch driven by humans. Our environmental impact is indeed profound – there is little debate about that – but is it significant on a geological timescale, measured over millions of…

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