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This Very Short Introduction explains the science behind the Anthropocene and the many proposals about when to mark its beginning: the nuclear tests of the 1950s? The beginnings of agriculture? The origins of humans as a species? Erle Ellis considers the many ways that the Anthropocene's "evolving paradigm" is reshaping the sciences, stimulating the humanities, and foregrounding the politics of life on a planet transformed by humans. The Anthropocene remains a work in progress. Is this the story of an unprecedented planetary disaster? Or of newfound wisdom and redemption? Ellis offers an insightful discussion of our role in shaping the planet, and how this will influence our future on many fronts.

A recently published analysis by Lewis and Maslin (Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015) Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519: 171–180) has identified two new potential horizons for the Holocene−Anthropocene boundary: 1610 (associated with European colonization of the Americas), or 1964 (the peak of the excess radiocarbon signal arising from atom bomb tests). We discuss both of these novel suggestions, and consider that there is insufficient stratigraphic basis for the former, whereas placing the latter at the peak of the signal rather than at its inception does not follow normal stratigraphical practice. Wherever the boundary is eventually placed, it should be optimized to reflect stratigraphical evidence with the least possible ambiguity.

Land systems are the result of human interactions with the natural environment. Understanding the drivers, state, trends and impacts of different land systems on social and natural processes helps to reveal how changes in the land system affect the functioning of the socio-ecological system as a whole and the tradeoff these changes may represent. The Global Land Project has led advances by synthesizing land systems research across different scales and providing concepts to further understand the feedbacks between social-and environmental systems, between urban and rural environments and between distant world regions. Land system science has moved from a focus on observation of change and understanding the drivers of these changes to a focus on using this understanding to design sustainable transformations through stakeholder engagement and through the concept of land governance. As land use can be seen as the largest geo-engineering project in which mankind has engaged, land system science can act as a platform for integration of insights from different disciplines and for translation of knowledge into action.

Humans have fundamentally altered global patterns of biodiversity and ecosystem processes. Surprisingly, existing systems for representing these global patterns, including biome classifications, either ignore humans altogether or simplify human influence into, at most, four categories. Here, we present the first characterization of terrestrial biomes based on global patterns of sustained, direct human interaction with ecosystems. Eighteen “anthropogenic biomes” were identified through empirical analysis of global population, land use, and land cover. More than 75% of Earth's ice-free land showed evidence of alteration as a result of human residence and land use, with less than a quarter remaining as wildlands, supporting just 11% of terrestrial net primary production. Anthropogenic biomes offer a new way forward by acknowledging human influence on global ecosystems and moving us toward models and investigations of the terrestrial biosphere that integrate human and ecological systems.

We evaluate the boundary of the Anthropocene geological time interval as an epoch, since it is useful to have a consistent temporal definition for this increasingly used unit, whether the presently informal term is eventually formalized or not. Of the three main levels suggested – an ‘early Anthropocene’ level some thousands of years ago; the beginning of the Industrial Revolution at ∼1800 CE (Common Era); and the ‘Great Acceleration’ of the mid-twentieth century – current evidence suggests that the last of these has the most pronounced and globally synchronous signal. A boundary at this time need not have a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP or ‘golden spike’) but can be defined by a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA), i.e. a point in time of the human calendar. We propose an appropriate boundary level here to be the time of the world's first nuclear bomb explosion, on July 16th 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico; additional bombs were detonated at the average rate of one every 9.6 days until 1988 with attendant worldwide fallout easily identifiable in the chemostratigraphic record. Hence, Anthropocene deposits would be those that may include the globally distributed primary artificial radionuclide signal, while also being recognized using a wide range of other stratigraphic criteria. This suggestion for the Holocene–Anthropocene boundary may ultimately be superseded, as the Anthropocene is only in its early phases, but it should remain practical and effective for use by at least the current generation of scientists.

Since 2009, the Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ (or, commonly, AWG for Anthropocene Working Group), has been critically analysing the case for formalization of this proposed but still informal geological time unit. The study to date has mainly involved establishing the overall nature of the Anthropocene as a potential chronostratigraphic/geochronologic unit, and exploring the stratigraphic proxies, including several that are novel in geology, that might be applied to its characterization and definition. A preliminary summary of evidence and interim recommendations was presented by the Working Group at the 35th International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, in August 2016, together with results of voting by members of the AWG indicating the current balance of opinion on major questions surrounding the Anthropocene. The majority opinion within the AWG holds the Anthropocene to be stratigraphically real, and recommends formalization at epoch/series rank based on a mid-20th century boundary. Work is proceeding towards a formal proposal based upon selection of an appropriate Global boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), as well as auxiliary stratotypes. Among the array of proxies that might be used as a primary marker, anthropogenic radionuclides associated with nuclear arms testing are the most promising; potential secondary markers include plastic, carbon isotope patterns and industrial fly ash. All these proxies have excellent global or near-global correlation potential in a wide variety of sedimentary bodies, both marine and non-marine.