People May Get Place in Geologic Time Scale

Man’s activity on Earth is changing the planet.
EPA/Belinda Rain

The Anthropocene is the name of a proposed new geological time period (probably an epoch) that may soon enter the official Geologic Time Scale. The Anthropocene is defined by the human influence on Earth, where we have become a geological force shaping the global landscape and evolution of our planet.

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According to this idea, the present epoch — still known as the Holocene, which started 11,000 years ago — would have ended somewhere between the end of 18th century and the 1950s (when the Anthropocene began). The earlier time limit considers the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere that is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy to power our growing industrial technology.

We may consider this process to have started in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt. The present high levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are probably causing global warming. The later time period takes into account the increasing background radiation from the nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union during the beginning of the Cold War. (8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World)

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This new frontier in the geological timeline is potentially more precisely defined than any was before due to its recent occurrence. The Antrhopocene is also supported by increasing evidence of human influence on natural global processes, such as the sediment transport being supplanted by our construction processes; land occupation and transformation; water course deviation and water reserve appropriation; massive extinction and introduction of invasive species; development and widespread use of previously non-existent chemical substances (eg. plastics and persistent organic pollutants); and even the creation of new elements (the last 20 in the periodic table).

In this interview, Dr. David Grinspoon, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and Curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, talks about a book he is writing on the Anthropocene from an astrobiology point of view.

Q: The Anthropocene concept has been slowly emerging in science due to comments from Antonio Stoppani in 1873 (Anthropozoic era), LeConte in 1879 (Psychozoic), Pavlov in 1922 (Anthropogene) and Vernadsky in 1962 (Noosphere). Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen formally addressed the concept and introduced the Anthropocene term in the title of a paper for the Global Change Newsletter in 2000. Could you tell us when and how you got involved with the topic?

David Grinspoon: It’s a topic I’ve long been interested in. Even as a kid enthralled with science fiction, I wondered about the role of people in the long-term evolution of the Earth, the far future and the fate of humanity. And thinking about advanced life elsewhere in the universe also leads us back to wonder about how long a civilization can last, which raises the same questions. (10 Wildest Ways to Contact Aliens)

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In my PhD thesis, written in 1989, I discussed the fact that when a civilization develops the technology to prevent catastrophic asteroid impacts, it marks a significant moment in the evolution of the planet. And the book I’m writing now I actually started even before I finished my last book in 2003. It’s a natural sequel because in the end of that book I speculate about what the coming of "intelligence" and "civilization" mean for Earth and other planets.

So even though "Anthropocene" is a recently popular term for this concept, I’ve been thinking and writing about it for over 20 years. I’m so happy that it’s becoming such a central topic of discussion in the worlds of science, policy and environmental activism. It’s about time!

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