Having made mark on Earth, humans may name era too

People are changing Earth so much, warming and polluting it, that many scientists are turning to a new way to describe the time we live in.

They’re calling it the Anthropocene — the age of humans.

Though most non-experts don’t realise it, science calls the past 12,000 years the Holocene, Greek for “entirely recent”. But the way humans and their industries are altering the planet, especially its climate, has caused an increasing number of scientists to use the word Anthropocene to better describe when and where we are.

“We’re changing the Earth. There is no question about that, I’ve seen it from space,” said eight-time spacewalking astronaut John Grunsfeld, now associate administrator for science at Nasa. He said that when he looked down from orbit, there was no place he could see on the planet that didn’t have the mark of man. So he uses the term Anthropocene, he said, “because we’re intelligent enough to recognise it”.

Grunsfeld was in the audience of a ‘Living in the Anthropocene’ symposium put by the Smithsonian. Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is displaying an art exhibit, ‘Fossils of the Anthropocene’. More than 500 scientific studies have been published this year referring to the current time period as the Anthropocene.

And, on Friday, the Anthropocene Working Group ramps up its efforts to change the era’s name with a meeting at a Berlin museum. The movement was jump-started and the name coined by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000, according to Australian National University scientist Will Steffen.

Geologists often mark new scientific time periods with what they call a golden spike — really more of a bronze disk in the rock layer somewhere that physically points out where one scientific time period ends and another begins, said Harvard University’s Andrew Knoll, who supports the idea because “humans have become a geologic force on the planet. The age we are living now in is really distinct.”

But instead of a golden spike in rock, “it’s going to be a layer of plastic that covers the planet, if not a layer of [heat-trapping] carbon”, said W. John Kress, acting undersecretary of science for the Smithsonian.

Steffen, one of the main leaders of the Anthropocene movement, said that the age of humans is more than just climate change. It includes ozone loss and changes in water.


Lifestyle

Louisa Earls is a manager at Books Upstairs, D’Olier St, Dublin, which is owned by her father, Maurice Earls.Virus response writes a new chapter for Books Upstairs

'That ladder you’ve got out is it safe; do you know what you’re doing?'Ireland's DIYers causing problems for doctors during covid19 crisis

I'm writing this column on March 25. Dates are suddenly vital. Measures to lower the death toll from Covid-19 improve daily. For some of us, their early implementation makes the difference between life and death.Damien Enright: Coping with confinement by coronavirus in the Canaries

There are almost three million motor vehicles in Ireland, more than one for every two people.Richard Collins: Glimmer of hope for the dwindling hedgehog

More From The Irish Examiner