Much like we have a biological clock, earth has its own geological clock, the only difference is that it spreads over millions and billions of years and our lifetime is merely a matter of seconds in it. Earth’s history is segmented into different phases based on the geological clock. The change in the geological time unit is marked by significant changes in the features such as the sedimentation pattern of rocks and fossil makeup. Thus, the study of rock strata (stratigraphy) is an important tool to find out the geological timescale shift. Another parameter considered to study the shift in geological timescale is atmospheric conditions.
Planet Earth’s brief history
The earth’s history is divided into geological units of time such as eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages, wherein the eon is the smallest measure of time. The recent epoch ‘Holocene’ is said to have started 11,700 years ago. At present we are living in the Meghalayan age of the Holocene epoch. The time duration between two epochs is usually very long, millions of years, however, it seems to have been accelerated due to human actions. Scientists think that we have already entered a new epoch, Anthropocene, meaning the age of man.
The changing time
The term Anthropocene was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000. The idea has been floating for some time but gained a lot more attention with deteriorating climatic changes. Although not yet official, the term has been widely used not only in the field of geology but also in life science, history, medicine, philosophy, etc. Many scientists have been in support of the idea, however, it does face some resistance from a part of the scientific community. To assess the scientific basis of the notion, a committee called the ‘Anthropocene Working Group’ was established. It consists of geoscientists, mostly stratigraphers. In 2016, the committee voted and proposed that the word ‘Anthropocene’ be made official in the geological time scale.
It is not news to us that we have been dominating the planet since our existence and have been using its resources sumptuously. Our actions have had massive impacts on the planet and continue to do so. The major changes that have occurred due to anthropogenic activities are a rise in global temperatures, an increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. These human actions leave geological footprints, hence the name Anthropocene, the new age of man.
Anthropogenic activities driving the change
Scientists believe that the chapter on anthropogenic activities, causing environmental disturbances, started with the practice of agriculture. Man invented different tools and techniques to improve agricultural yield, converted forest land into agricultural land, domesticated animals, and started the unending series of activities leading to the destruction of natural habitats. This was followed by the scientific revolution. The discovery of modern sciences increased the general awareness of man regarding his own body as well as his surroundings. It resulted in a boom in the field of health and medicine, leading to improved life expectancy and longevity. The obvious outcome was an exponential increase in the human population. More people needed more food, energy, and a place to live, thus an increase in agriculture, indiscriminate use of fossil fuels to meet the energy demand, and deforestation. The invention of the steam engine started the industrial revolution which has been a major contributor to climate change. The further boom in technological advancement and man invented nuclear weapons. The second half of the 20th century saw the rise of plastic, another human invention that has been detrimental to the environment. The 20th century marked many inventions and advancements. The latter half of the 20th century is referred to as the period of great acceleration. Unfortunately, at the same time when the human race was advancing, planet Earth’s health was weakening.
When did the Anthropocene start?
It is an ongoing debate whether Anthoropcene be made official on the geological timescale. Among those who believe that we have indeed entered the Anthropocene epoch, there is a disagreement on its starting point. A few believe that it started with the beginning of agricultural practices, as agricultural practices and deforestation alter soil properties and sedimentation patterns of rocks, while others believe that Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution which resulted in drastic changes in atmospheric chemistry and eventual alteration of geological features. The Anthropocene Working Group has nominated 1950 to be the year for the start of the Anthropocene claiming that the plutonium traces had made their way into our environment by then. In 2016, the group proposed that we entered Anthropocene in 1950 and have identified a location for the ‘Golden spike’.
Why does Anthropocene matter?
Earth’s history has repeatedly shown that change in the geological time scale has often been accompanied by mass extinctions. To give the simplest and most common examples, the Cenozoic era marked the extinction of dinosaurs, the most dominant species then. Earth’s biodiversity has faced several blows during the last few years with many plants and animal species going extinct. It’s time for us to realize that our planet is habitable because of its biodiversity, alone we do not stand a chance. The questions now are, have we entered the Anthropocene epoch, and are we headed toward the sixth mass extinction? Although the term Anthropocene has not been made official yet and lacks clarity on its starting time, there is no denying that the planet that we have lived on for ages has indeed changed and for the worse.
The primary aim behind making the term official is for us to understand the gravity of our actions and act upon them. Every step that we take toward climate action and mitigation is critical and if we fail the effects would be horrendous.