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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.

While the concept of the Anthropocene reflects the past and present nature, scale and magnitude of human impacts on the Earth System, its true significance lies in how it can be used to guide attitudes, choices, policies and actions that influence the future. Yet, to date much of the research on the Anthropocene has focused on interpreting past and present changes, while saying little about the future. Likewise, many futures studies have been insufficiently rooted in an understanding of past changes, in particular the long-term co-evolution of bio-physical and human systems. The Anthropocene perspective is one that encapsulates a world of intertwined drivers, complex dynamic structures, emergent phenomena and unintended consequences, manifest across different scales and within interlinked biophysical constraints and social conditions. In this paper we discuss the changing role of science and the theoretical, methodological and analytical challenges in considering futures of the Anthropocene. We present three broad groups of research questions on: (1) societal goals for the future; (2) major trends and dynamics that might favor or hinder them; (3) and factors that might propel or impede transformations towards desirable futures. Tackling these questions requires the development of novel approaches integrating natural and social sciences as well as the humanities beyond what is current today. We present three examples, one from each group of questions, illustrating how science might contribute to the identification of desirable and plausible futures and pave the way for transformations towards them. We argue that it is time for debates on the sustainability of the Anthropocene to focus on opportunities for realizing desirable and plausible futures.

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.