Earth System Science

A major advance in defining the Anthropocene

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Anthropocene Working Group announces shortlist of ‘golden spike’ locations; Scientists plan to vote this year

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The Anthropocene Working Group has taken a major step towards identifying a “golden spike” location to be used in the formal definition of the Anthropocene. In public meetings held this week, during the Unearthing the Present conference in Berlin, the AWG introduced their Anthropocene short-list — 12 possible candidates for a unique reference location that clearly indicates the beginning of the new epoch.

Golden spikes — formally called Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Points — are reference points that mark the beginnings of new stages in planetary history. The location that is finally selected will become an important part of the final definition of the Anthropocene in the Geological Time Scale.

Jens Zinke, Mark Williams, Jan Zalasiewicz and Stephen Himson, all associated with the University of Leicester, presented the results of research at the 12 sites that are being considered.

  • Beppu Bay (marine sediments), Kyushu Island, Japan
  • Crawford Lake (lake muds), Ontario, Canada
  • Ernesto Cave (cave deposits), Italy
  • Flinders Reef (coral), Coral Sea, Australia
  • Gotland Basin (marine sediments), Baltic Sea
  • Palmer Ice Core (ice sheet), Antarctic Peninsula
  • San Francisco Estuary (marine sediments), California, USA
  • Searsville Reservoir (lake muds), California, USA
  • Sihailongwan Lake (lake muds), Jilin province, China
  • Śnieżka Bog (peat layers), Poland
  • Vienna Museum Excavation (urban soil), Austria
  • West Flower Garden Bank (coral), Gulf of Mexico

The studies were unveiled for the first time at the meeting in Berlin, beginning a focused discussion of which one offers the most precise and complete record of the global changes at the beginning of the Anthropocene. A key issue will be each site’s usefulness to future scientists who study the new epoch.

Results of the 12 studies will be published in a coming issue of The Anthropocene Review, and AWG members plan to vote on a golden spike location in October and November. The result will be then included in a submission to a future meeting of the International Geological Congress, probably in 2024.

While the Anthropocene is widely recognized as a new phase in our planet’s history, it has still to be formally incorporated into the Geological Time Scale. This announcement is an important step towards that goal.

Recommended: “Biological and Paleontological Signatures of the Anthropocene,” published this week in The Anthropocene Curriculum, is an informative summary of scientific issues involved in defining the Anthropocene.

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Facing the Anthropocene tackles the large theme of how this emerging epoch links with human societies – and how it might affect them. It’s a clearly-written and well-paced account that combines clear summary of the scientific evidence for unfolding global change with thought-provoking analysis of the socio-economic factors driving it.” —Jan Zalasiewicz, Past-chair of the Anthropocene Working Group

“The Anthropocene means many things to many people, but there is one thing on which everyone concerned about the future agrees: a business-as-usual approach is not a viable option. The science on which the Anthropocene concept is based—and this book does an excellent job of describing that science—is crystal clear. We urgently need a societal discussion about where we are going, and this book makes a hard-hitting, provocative contribution to that discussion.” —Will Steffen, former Executive Director, International Geosphere-Biosphere Program