In the field of geology, an epoch is a period in Earth’s history used to identify a specific era. An epoch, therefore, becomes a reference point to categorize objects of geological study. For most of the Earth’s history, these periods last for millions of years. That is, until we (humans) came along. Officially, we are currently in the Holocene epoch which only covers, roughly, the past 12,000 years.
Now, a team of international scientists and researchers who have gathered at the International Geological Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa are saying that it’s time that a new epoch should be declared. They’re calling it the Anthropocene, signifying the significant role human activity is having on the currently developing sediment.
This human-influenced epoch is marked, unfortunately, by climate change, air pollution, population growth, significant rainforest loss. There is still some debate as to when the epoch’s start is, but some are pointing to the 1950s, when nuclear testing began and prompted radioactive elements to become a part of the sediment. In order to declare the new epoch, there has to be a clear signal, defined as a “golden spike,” of a change in the geological record. Aside from radioactive sediment, other candidates include deposits caused from the burning of fossil fuels, the effects of fertilizer on soil, and plastic pollution, among others.
Of the 35 experts, recognized as the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA), 30 voted for the declaration of the new epoch. “The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part,” WGA chair, Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist from the University of Leicester in the UK told The Guardian. “…we have lived most of our lives in something called the Anthropocene and are just realizing the scale and permanence of the change.”
The experts are now conducting more investigations to make sure that this human-influenced epoch is indeed scientifically valid. This could entail several years of sampling and analysis to identify when the Anthropocene epoch officially starts and then be submitted to the International Commission on Stratisgraphy (ICS). From there, it will be formalized by the International Union of Geological Sciences.