August 29, 2023

Are we in the Anthropocene?

4.6 billion years. That is how old the Earth is, according to geological records captured by scientists. Of those 4.6 billion years of existence, the planet has experienced quite a lot. For almost a billion years, it was merely a ball full of diverse metals, liquids, and gasses. Eventually, oceans began to form, followed by an atmosphere, mountains, plains, and rivers. Then, the first signs of life appeared and transformed the landscape. Microbes took over the globe. The atmosphere became oxygenated. Land masses drifted apart, and continents formed. As more time passed on, life began to experiment and evolve into more complex organisms, and biodiversity would explode - then plummet, multiple times. Ice ages. Ocean acidification. Volcanic eruptions. Large asteroids. All of these events seemingly doomed the flora and fauna of the planet, but life was always able to recover. Simply put, the Earth has endured a lot, and many events have shaped the trajectory of its future. One relatively recent event has had an incredible influence on the planet’s continuance, and it happened around 300,000 years ago. It was the emergence of Homo Sapiens, or the modern human being.

If the Earth’s existence was imagined as a big stack of paper, with each year being a piece of paper, it would measure roughly 290 miles long. If a similar calculation was done for the timeline of humans, that stack would only measure 0.019 miles, or 33 yards, long. In our 0.019 miles of existence, humans have accomplished a lot. Thousands of years of innovation and industrialization have helped human civilization to develop at an incredible pace. Access to resources has never been easier. Urbanization has never been more widespread. Humans have conquered the globe and altered it dramatically.

While a lot has been accomplished, it has not all been good. Warfare, worldwide inequality, pollution, and other acts have been a part of the human race's journey to advancement. Evidence of these events can be found in the preserved geological records of the Earth, which scientists use to date and define the geological time periods of the planet’s existence. In the most recent recording, it is clear that humans have changed the Earth unlike anything ever seen before. These recordings contain radioactive particles from fallout and nuclear bombs. They contain large concentrations of ash from the burning of fossil fuels to power a booming population. They contain microplastics, which have been found in the tissues of humans and even the coldest parts of the arctic. This overwhelming amount of evidence of human-caused change in the Earth has led the scientific community to wonder whether we’ve entered a new geological time period - the Anthropocene, or the age of large scale human disturbance.

The geological epoch would have a start date at around 70 years ago, when 2.5 billion people were on the planet and society had just weaponized the atomic bomb. Scientists and scholars have been debating the Anthropocene since it was first proposed. The reason for this debate is that it would solidify the fact that humans have had an incredible impact on the Earth, and that fact is worrisome and controversial to many people. The quest to prove that the Anthropocene exists has been led by a panel of scientists and anthropologists named the Anthropocene Working Group. As a basis for their argument, the team samples numerous sites across the world to find irrefutable evidence of humans’ impact on Earth. They recently just announced that geologic samples harvested in Crawford Lake, Ontario, show absolute proof of human presence, finding particles of ash and radiation in areas where they shouldn’t exist. The group plans to use Crawford Lake and other sites around the world to propose that the Holocene, the current geological time period signifying the development of modern humans, has come to an end.