The dawn of a new epoch?

Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz is a researcher at the University of Leicester. -  University of Leicester
Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz is a researcher at the University of Leicester. – University of Leicester

Geologists from the University of Leicester are among four scientists- including a Nobel prize-winner – who suggest that the Earth has entered a new age of geological time.

The Age of Aquarius? Not quite – It’s the Anthropocene Epoch, say the scientists writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. (web issue March 29; print issue April 1)

And they add that the dawning of this new epoch may include the sixth largest mass extinction in the Earth’s history.

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams from the University of Leicester Department of Geology; Will Steffen, Director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute and Paul Crutzen the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist of Mainz University provide evidence for the scale of global change in their commentary in the American Chemical Society’s’ bi-weekly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The scientists propose that, in just two centuries, humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes to our world that we actually might be ushering in a new geological time interval, and alter the planet for millions of years.

Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen and Crutzen contend that recent human activity, including stunning population growth, sprawling megacities and increased use of fossil fuels, have changed the planet to such an extent that we are entering what they call the Anthropocene (New Man) Epoch.

First proposed by Crutzen more than a decade ago, the term Anthropocene has provoked controversy. However, as more potential consequences of human activity – such as global climate change and sharp increases in plant and animal extinctions – have emerged, Crutzen’s term has gained support. Currently, the worldwide geological community is formally considering whether the Anthropocene should join the Jurassic, Cambrian and other more familiar units on the Geological Time Scale.

The scientists note that getting that formal designation will likely be contentious. But they conclude, “However these debates will unfold, the Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet.”

Man-Made Changes Bring About New Epoch in Earth’s History


Geologists from the University of Leicester propose that humankind has so altered the Earth that it has brought about an end to one epoch of Earth’s history and marked the start of a new epoch.



Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams at the University of Leicester and their colleagues on the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London have presented their research in the journal GSA Today.



In it, they suggest humans have so changed the Earth that on the planet the Holocene epoch has ended and we have entered a new epoch – the Anthropocene.


They have identified human impact through phenomena such as:



  • Transformed patterns of sediment erosion and deposition worldwide



  • Major disturbances to the carbon cycle and global temperature



  • Wholesale changes to the world’s plants and animals



  • Ocean acidification


The scientists analysed a proposal made by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2002. He suggested the Earth had left the Holocene and started the Anthropocene era because of the global environmental effects of increased human population and economic development.



The researchers argue that the dominance of humans has so physically changed Earth that there is increasingly less justification for linking pre- and post-industrialized Earth within the same epoch – the Holocene.



The scientists said their findings present the scholarly groundwork for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy for formal adoption of the Anthropocene as the youngest epoch of, and most recent addition to, the Earth’s geological timescale.



They state: “Sufficient evidence has emerged of stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene-currently a vivid yet informal metaphor of global environmental change-as a new geological epoch to be considered for formalization by international discussion.”