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The rise of plastics since the mid-20th century, both as a material element of modern life and as a growing environmental pollutant, has been widely described. Their distribution in both the terrestrial and marine realms suggests that they are a key geological indicator of the Anthropocene, as a distinctive stratal component. Most immediately evident in terrestrial deposits, they are clearly becoming widespread in marine sedimentary deposits in both shallow- and deep-water settings. They are abundant and widespread as macroscopic fragments and virtually ubiquitous as microplastic particles; these are dispersed by both physical and biological processes, not least via the food chain and the ‘faecal express’ route from surface to sea floor. Plastics are already widely dispersed in sedimentary deposits, and their amount seems likely to grow several-fold over the next few decades. They will continue to be input into the sedimentary cycle over coming millennia as temporary stores – landfill sites – are eroded. Plastics already enable fine time resolution within Anthropocene deposits via the development of their different types and via the artefacts (‘technofossils’) they are moulded into, and many of these may have long-term preservation potential when buried in strata.

Stratigraphic boundaries are ideally defined by distinct lithological,geochemical, and palaeobiological signatures, to which a chronological framework can be applied. We present a range of observations that illustrate how the Holocene-Anthropocene transition meets these criteria in its expression in sediments from remote arctic and alpine lakes, removed from direct, catchment-scale, anthropogenic influences. In glaciated lake basins, the retreat of glaciers commonly leads to lithological successions from proglacial clastic sedimentation to non-glacial organic deposition. Sediments from the majority of lakes record marked depletions in the nitrogen stable isotopic composition of sediment organic matter, reflecting anthropogenic influences on the global nitrogen cycle. In all cases, siliceous microfossil assemblages (diatoms and chrysophytes) change markedly and directionally, with regional nuances. These stratigraphic fingerprints begin to appear in the sediment record after AD 1850, but accelerate in pulses between AD 1950 and 1970 and again after AD 1980. Our review indicates that recent environmental changes associated with humankind's dominance of key global biogeochemical cycles are sufficiently pervasive to be imprinted on the sediment record of remote lakes. Moreover, these changes are of sufficient magnitude to conclude that the Holocene has effectively ended, and that the concept of Anthropocene more aptly describes current planetary dynamics. The synthesis of these observations pertains directly to ongoing discussions concerning the eventual formalization of a new stratigraphic boundary.

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.