Ecosocialist Notebook
New epoch

Major step towards formalizing the Anthropocene

BULLETIN: Overwhelming majority of working group votes: A new epoch in Earth history began in the mid-20th century


As TV newscasters say, ‘This just in …’

The panel charged with investigating whether a new epoch in Earth history has begun has taken a major step towards approval of the Anthropocene as a formal unit in the Geological Time Scale.

Following an informal presentation to the International Union of Geological Sciences in 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group committed to further research leading to binding votes that would require a 60% majority. The results of those votes were announced today, May 21, 2019.

Should the Anthropocene be treated as a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit defined by a GSSP?

YES: 29.  NO: 4.  ABSTENTIONS: 0.

Should the primary guide for the base of the Anthropocene be one of the stratigraphic signals around the mid-twentieth century of the Common Era?

YES: 29.  NO: 4.  ABSTENTIONS: 0.

Translation: Should geologists formally recognize the Anthropocene as a new epoch that began around 1950?  Absolutely yes!

So far as I can tell from a distance, the 4 dissenters oppose declaring a new epoch on the grounds that humans have been changing the world for thousands of years. The majority view is that after millennia of gradual changes, a period of unprecedented and qualitative global change began in the mid-20th century.

This ends the latest phase of the scientific debate. The AWG’s next task is to select a GSSP or “golden spike” — a specific place that scientists can use to identify the beginning of the Anthropocene in geological strata. The group will meet in Germany next week to develop a work plan: at least 10 locations are under active consideration.

I expect that the AWG will submit a formal recommendation, including a GSSP, to geology’s various governing bodies, in 2021.

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Posted in Anthropocene, Ecosoc Notebook

4 Responses to Major step towards formalizing the Anthropocene

  1. Prof Ron Nielsen May 23, 2019 at 1:04 am #

    The proposed beginning of the Anthropocene in the 1950s or in the second half of the 20th century is not supported by data. Anthropocene has no clearly determinable beginning. It might be a new stage in human history but there is no convincing evidence that Anthropocene is a new geological epoch. Evidence of human presence in stratigrphic deposits does not necessarily mean that humans are causing transition to a new geological epoch.

    • Ian Angus May 23, 2019 at 9:26 am #

      The idea that “there is no convincing evidence” is unsustainable. The evidence, from a host of different sources, is massive. For the most recent summary, see The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit, edited by members of the AWG and published this year by Cambridge University Press. You may not like the idea that a new epoch has begun, but the evidence is very powerful.

  2. Tyrone Mayo May 23, 2019 at 9:12 am #

    Thanks for the hard, and often frustrating, work to all who have worked for years to establish the Anthropocene as a geologic unit of time.
    I am glad the voters realized that post WW2 marked a change in quality and not just quantity and the data pointing to the disruption in eight earth systems marked the late 1940’s/early 1950’s as the beginning.
    Capitalist industrial agriculture; the inundation of the planet with single use plastic; and the radioactive pollution fomented by the military(mainly) are part of the existential threat the earth and its species are facing.

    • Ken Mazlen May 23, 2019 at 10:13 am #

      The Anthropocene will be very very brief. We are at the end of the Cainozoic.

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