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Welcome to the Anthropocene

Credit: Mopic

Credit: Mopic

By Will Steffen

Say goodbye to the Holocene. Later this year a new epoch might be formally recognised.

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The Palaeocene, the Oligocene, the Eocene, the Pliocene, the Pleistocene and, most recently, the Holocene are time periods marking significant changes in the evolution of the planet, all the way from its beginning about 4.6 billion years ago to the present. Often these periods mark changes in the biosphere, such as the evolution of multicellular organisms or the extinction of the dinosaurs, or changes in the climate, such as the swings between “icehouse” and “hothouse” conditions.

These changes have been driven by the internal dynamics of the Earth itself, such as plate tectonics and the evolution of life, but also by extraterrestrial factors such as large meteorite strikes or changes in the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. This brings us to the idea that a new epoch has commenced.

The Anthropocene is different because it is being driven by the myriad activities of our increasingly globalised human society. This means that the concept of the Anthropocene is immediately beyond the expertise of natural scientists alone, attracting increasing attention from social scientists and humanities scholars as well as the public at large.

There is nevertheless a strong natural science basis to the Anthropocene, drawing primarily from two broad areas of the sciences – stratigraphy and Earth System science.

Stratigraphers are the timekeepers of planet...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.