ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy

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What is the 'Anthropocene'? - current definition and status

  • The 'Anthropocene' is a term widely used since its coining by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present time interval, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. These include changes in: erosion and sediment transport associated with a variety of anthropogenic processes, including colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming. the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with significant anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals. environmental conditions generated by these perturbations; these include global warming, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic 'dead zones'. the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, species invasions and the physical and chemical changes noted above.
  • The 'Anthropocene' is not a formally defined geological unit within the Geological Time Scale. A proposal to formalise the 'Anthropocene' is being developed by the 'Anthropocene' Working Group for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016. Care should be taken to distinguish the concept of an 'Anthropocene' from the previously used term Anthropogene (cf. below**).
  • The 'Anthropocene' is currently being considered by the Working Group as a potential geological epoch, i.e. at the same hierarchical level as the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, with the implication that it is within the Quaternary Period, but that the Holocene has terminated. It might, alternatively, also be considered at a lower (Age) hierarchical level; that would imply it is a subdivision of the ongoing Holocene Epoch.
  • Broadly, to be accepted as a formal term the 'Anthropocene' needs to be (a) scientifically justified (i.e. the 'geological signal' currently being produced in strata now forming must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive) and (b) useful as a formal term to the scientific community. In terms of (b), the currently informal term 'Anthropocene' has already proven to be very useful to the global change research community and thus will continue to be used, but it remains to be determined whether formalisation within the Geological Time Scale would make it more useful or broaden its usefulness to other scientific communities, such as the geological community.
  • The beginning of the 'Anthropocene' is most generally considered to be at c. 1800 CE, around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe (Crutzen's original suggestion); other potential candidates for time boundaries have been suggested, at both earlier dates (within or even before the Holocene) or later (e.g. at the start of the nuclear age). A formal 'Anthropocene' might be defined either with reference to a particular point within a stratal section, that is, a Global Stratigraphic Section and Point (GSSP), colloquially known as a 'golden spike; or, by a designated time boundary (a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age).
  • The 'Anthropocene' has emerged as a popular scientific term used by scientists, the scientifically engaged public and the media to designate the period of Earth's history during which humans have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system. It is widely agreed that the Earth is currently in this state.

Working group convenor:

Dr Jan Zalasiewicz (Leicester) e-mail: jaz1@le.ac.uk


Colin Waters (Secretary) e-mail: cnw@bgs.ac.uk
Anthony Barnosky e-mail: barnosky@berkeley.edu
Alejandro Cearreta e-mail: alejandro.cearreta@ehu.es
Paul Crutzen e-mail: paul.crutzen@mpic.de
Matt Edgeworth e-mail: me87@le.ac.uk
Erle Ellis e-mail: ece@umbc.edu
Mike Ellis e-mail: mich3@bgs.ac.uk
Ian Fairchild e-mail: i.fairchild@bham.ac.uk
Agnieszka Gałuszka [http://aggie@ujk.edu.pl] e-mail: aggie@ujk.edu.pl
Philip Gibbard (Past-president SQS, chair INQUA-SACCOM) e-mail: plg1@cam.ac.uk
Jacques Grinevald e-mail: jacques.grinevald@graduateinstitute.ch
Peter Haff e-mail: pkhaff@gmail.com
Irka Hajdas [http://hajdas@phys.ethz.ch] e-mail: hajdas@phys.ethz.ch
Alan Haywood e-mail: A.Haywood@leeds.ac.uk
Catherine Jeandel e-mail: Catherine.Jeandel@legos.obs-mip.fr
Andrew Kerr e-mail: kerra@cardiff.ac.uk
Reinhold Leinfelder e-mail leinfelder@hu-berlin.de
John McNeill e-mail: mcneillj@georgetown.edu
Cath Neal [http://cath.neal@york.ac.uk] e-mail: cath.neal@york.ac.uk
Carlos Nobre e-mail: carlos.nobre@inpe.br
Eric Odada e-mail: eodada@uonbi.ac.ke
Naomi Oreskes e-mail: oreskes@fas.harvard.edu
Clément Poirier e-mail Clement.poirier@univ-lr.fr
Simon Price e-mail: sprice@bgs.ac.uk
Andrew Revkin e-mail revkin@gmail.com
Dan Richter e-mail drichter@duke.edu
Mary Scholes e-mail: mary.scholes@wits.ac.za
Victoria C. Smith [http://victoria.smith@rlaha.ox.ac.uk] e-mail: victoria.smith@rlaha.ox.ac.uk
Will Steffen e-mail: will.steffen@anu.edu.au
Colin Summerhayes [http://cps32@cam.ac.uk] e-mail: cps32@cam.ac.uk
James Syvitski e-mail: james.syvitski@colorado.edu
Davor Vidas e-mail Davor.Vidas@fni.no
Michael Wagreich e-mail: michael.wagreich@univie.ac.at
Mark Williams e-mail: mri@le.ac.uk
Scott Wing [http://wings@si.edu] e-mail: wings@si.edu
Alex Wolfe e-mail: awolfe@ualberta.ca
An Zhisheng e-mail: anzs@loess.ac.cn

Working Group communications:

Links to publications and communications on the 'Anthropocene'

**Note on the term Anthropogene

Excerpt from: Nilsson, T. 1983 The Pleistocene. Reidel, Dordrecht, p. 23-4.

Soviet scientists discarded the concept of an integrated Tertiary Period. They followed certain non-Russian writers in classifying the divisions Paleogene and Neogene as periods, which they divided into the conventional epochs. Being (as they saw it) a relic of an antiquated classification, the term Quaternary, too, had been abandoned and replaced by the designation Anthropogene (analogous to Paleogene, Neogene), though its conceptional meaning remained unaltered (cf. i.a. Gerasimov, 1979). The Quaternary or Anthropogene retained the rank of a period. Linguistically, however, the term Anthropogene seems less fortunate.

With similar motivation, Czechoslovakian geologists used the term Anthropozoikum as a synonym for Quaternary. Procedures of this kind clearly over-emphasize the significance of the changes that serve to distinguish the Quaternary.

Reference: Gerasimov, I.P. 1979 Anthropogene and its major problem. Boreas 8, 23-30

Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy,
International Commission on Stratigraphy
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