Congratulations, you’ve all made it into a new epoch. Give yourselves a pat on the back for surviving the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. I hope you made some good New Epoch Resolutions.
For those of you that didn’t immediately stop reading, here’s some background information to explain what the hell this means. Our planet’s geological history is divided up into different eras, which are in turn divided into smaller periods, which themselves are divided even further into epochs. Currently, we live in the Cenozoic era, the Quaternary period and the Holocene epoch. Well, at least we were living in the Holocene, sort of.
These divisions are complex and rely on a lot of different factors that only geologists understand. But essentially, these time periods are separated based on the overall climate and geological and biological changes that occur on Earth. When we move from an ice age to a warmer climate, or when glaciers shift around and alter the landscape or trigger mass extinctions, scientists often choose to classify these events into epochs that are characterized by certain environmental and evolutionary conditions.
The Holocene period started about 11,700 years ago after global temperatures jumped up at the end of the last ice age and the population of fully evolved modern humans started to grow and spread. Thanks to the impact that humans have had on the environment in the last several decades, things have changed again. Temperatures have risen so dramatically in recent years that scientists want to officially designate this a new epoch, called the Anthropocene. The “Anthro-” part comes from the Greek word for “human” to represent the role that humans had in ushering in this new epoch.
We didn’t just wake up this week in a brand new time period, though. The group that makes these decisions has proposed that the Anthropocene epoch actually began in 1950, shortly after we started above-ground nuclear weapons testing. Every new epoch that is designated must have some kind of primary event that signals the transition. The release of radioactive materials into our atmosphere during these weapons tests might be the triggering event which marks the first time humans had such a serious and direct negative impact on our environment.
Our entrance into the Anthropocene isn’t official yet, however. The Working Group on the Anthropocene, who researched and developed the idea of the Anthropocene, presented their recommendation to formally designate the new epoch at the International Geological Congress this week. Now they must seek out samples of dirt and rocks that support their theory, then present their findings to the International Union of Geological Sciences along with a formal definition of what the Anthropocene epoch entails. The IUGS then must make the ruling based on this evidence. The whole process could take a few more years to complete.
Who knew the science of dirt and rocks could be so utterly thrilling?