Welcome To The Anthropocene: Scientists Say The Earth Has Entered A New Era

Humankind is now the strongest force shaping the planet.

A group of scientists just did what no humans have ever done before: declared that the Earth is entering a new geological age in real-time.


The panel, presenting to the 35th International Geological Congress in South Africa, recommended that scientists officially recognize that the planet is entering a new “epoch” on the geological calendar, which divides the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history into time periods marked by major planetary-wide changes. For the last 12,000 years—since the end of the last Ice Age, when glaciers melted and sea level rose 120 meters—we have lived in the Holocene epoch.

But now the geologists say we have entered a new epoch–called the Anthropocene–that is defined by how humankind has fundamentally re-shaped the land, oceans, air, and wildlife.

[Image: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA]

The designation isn’t final yet. The Anthropocene Working Group officially submitted it for recognition and there is an official procedure to be followed. One important next step is to determine what “markers” would show a scientist in the far future when the Anthropocene began, just like geologists today studied the earth’s sedimentary and fossil record to lean when the Cretaceous period ended and the Tertiary period began. This is when a big asteroid in the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.

For the Anthropocene, the group suggested one beginning–1950–when radioactive elements from nuclear testing were likely spread all over the globe. As we wrote about in-depth in a previous article, there are many other possibilities that show the human touch, including mass extinctions, plastic pollution, and the spike in carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Whatever the verdict, it’s clear that humans alive today are living in an unprecedented time that will be noted by historians tens of thousands of years from now. That is, of course, if humankind doesn’t become a casualty of the Anthropocene era itself. If so, our demise would be our own doing.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.