This week the FT published a short but intriguing article on what scientists are close to announcing We have entered a new era. The Anthropocene is the first new epoch in nearly 12,000 years – one defined by the irreversible impact of humans on the world. The story was startling and serious, and we wanted to know more: who are these scientists making such big calls, why is it important, and what are the consequences of getting it wrong? We asked Clive CooksonFT’s science editor, to delve a little deeper.
After Hottest week in the world On record, it may seem obvious that humanity is having an irreversible impact on the planet, with many regions suffering from heat waves or floods associated with man-made global warming.
Besides climate change, the Earth bears many other scars from human activity. Materials ranging from plastics and odors to heavy metals pollute land and sea, while people have transformed the distribution of wildlife and plants around the world, spreading invasive species while reducing biodiversity.
However, scientists continue to debate whether human influence is sufficient to herald the start of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, and if so to replace the Holocene, which has ruled since the Ice Age ended 11,700 years ago.
The process took a step forward this week when the Anthropocene Working Group, made up of earth scientists from around the world working under the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), agreed on a site to represent the start of the new era.
They chose Canada’s Crawford Lake, a 2.4-hectare body of freshwater near Toronto. Its sediments contain an uninterrupted annual record of objects that have sunk 24 meters to the bottom of the lake. This “golden spike,” as scientists call a representative record of geological strata, shows increasing traces of synthetic chemicals and non-native organisms.
A specific indicator is the radioactive plutonium deposited as a result of atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs in the 1950s and early 60s. The group suggests 1950 as the start date for anthropogenesis.
The Anthropocene first appeared on the scientific agenda in 2000 when the late Paul Crutsen, an atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate, interrupted a conference lecture on the Holocene to shout, “We’re not in the Holocene anymore.” He told the audience that the world has entered the Anthropocene.
The idea gained acceptance from many geological colleagues, although the agreement was not unanimous. Other prominent scientists felt — and some still feel — that the evidence was insufficient to call the end of the Holocene. There is also controversy over when the Anthropocene began. Crutzen himself favored a date in the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution was underway.
However, the momentum is now with the mid-20th century. But the Anthropocene Working Group’s proposal must go through three voting stages as it moves into the internal structure of the IUGS.
The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy and the International Commission on Stratigraphy will comment before the Holocene proposal faces a final vote at the International Geological Congress in South Korea in August 2024. A majority of more than 60 percent is required at each stage. . Ultimate recognition is a long way off, geologists say.
The process may seem complicated but IUGS, one of the world’s largest scientific institutions with a million members, needs to show strong support for its decision. Unlike some other scientific questions, there is no indisputably correct answer to whether (and if so, when) humanity pushed the world into a new geological epoch. Ultimately this is an opinion.
Within a year, humanity’s impact on Earth may be even more pronounced than it is now, as more evidence of harmful pollution emerges and climate change wreaks more havoc. The official declaration that we are in the Anthropocene may provide a strong impetus for global action.
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Coming up next week
If you’re finding the arrival of the Anthropocene — and everything it means for humanity and our planet — almost too much to wrap your head around, join the club. “In Earth’s history, we’ve shaped the world so profoundly in the blink of an eye,” Camilla Cavendish rages in a powerful broadside in next week’s FT Edit. “We triggered the sixth mass extinction of other species; We have changed the biosphere, changed the chemistry of the oceans by burning fossil fuels; We have uprooted forests and poisoned the earth with chemicals.
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Tech Tonic – A generation of kids grew up using social media. Now lawmakers and academics are starting to ask questions about the psychological impact of being constantly online.
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FT Weekend Podcast – Here’s a fun fact: You don’t own your voice. The actual frequencies you’re talking about are impossible to copyright. As the FT’s pop critic Ludo Hunter-Tilney demonstrates, this is a huge problem for music artists in the age of AI.
Something to see
Gautam Adani is the industrialist responsible for building a large part of modern India’s infrastructure. But this FT movie tells the story of how a report from a short seller exposes the uneasy relationship between Adani and the Indian government.
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