Paul Crutzen and the Anthropocene Epoch

The following is from an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in NG (Mar 2011):

The word “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen about a decade ago.  One day Crutzen, who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds, was sitting at a scientific conference.  The conference chairman kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that–officially, at least–continues until this day.

“Let’s stop it,” Crutzen recalls blurting out.  “We are no longer in the Holocene.  We are in the Anthropocene.”  Well, it was quiet in the room for a while.  When the group took a coffee break, the Anthropocene was the main topic of conversation.  Someone suggested that Crutzen copyright the word.

Paul Crutzen, Dutch Nobel-Prizing-Winning Atmospheric Chemist

In 2002, when Crutzen wrote up the Anthropocene idea in the journal ‘Nature,’ the concept was immediately picked up by researchers working in a wide range of disciplines.  Soon it began to appear regularly in the scientific press.

In 2007, Jan Zalasiewicz, a British stratigrapher, was serving as chairman of the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission.  At a meeting he decided to ask his fellow stratigraphers what they thought of the Anthropocene.  Twenty-one of 22 thought the concept had merit.  The group agreed to look at it as a formal problem in geology.  Would the Anthropocene satisfy the criteria used for naming a new epoch?  . . . Zalasiewicz now heads a working group . . . that is tasked with officially determining whether the Anthropocene deserves to be incorporated into the geologic timescale. . . .  The process is likely to take years.

If we have indeed entered a new epoch, there when exactly did it begin?  When did human impacts rise to the level of geologic importance? . . .  Crutzen has suggested that the Anthropocene began in the late 18th century, when, ice cores show, carbon dioxide levels began what has since proved to an uninterrupted rise.  Other scientists put the beginning  of the epoch in the middle of the 20th century, when the rates of both population growth and consumption accelerated rapidly.

Crutzen, who started the debate, thinks its real value won’t lie in revisions to geology textbooks.  His purpose is broader:  He wants to focus our attention on the consequences of our collective action–and on how we might still avert the worst.  “What I hope,” he says, “is term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.”

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2 Responses to Paul Crutzen and the Anthropocene Epoch

  1. How this influence will be reflected in the distinctive geological record forms the basis of the studies published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A..Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams from the University of Leicester Department of Geology led the production of the studies into the Anthropocene a new geological epoch distinguished by the change that man has wrought upon the earth..Dr Zalasiewicz said At the beginning of this millennium the Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that we are now living in a new geological interval of time that is dominated by human activities. Since then the Anthropocene has increasingly been used both by scientists and by the public as in indication of the scale of human change to planet Earth. . The results give us a much clearer picture of the way in which we are changing the world and of how long these changes might last. .The authors 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..They add 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.

  2. roger hansen says:

    The following is a letter to the editor of NG from Jennifer Mason, Tallahassee, FL (Jun 2011):

    “I don’t like the coined term “anthropocene” in your article. Since all of the large number of fertile people today were born from fertile women, I think the word “archocene” (from the Greek archos, meaning “master”) is far more appropriate. The other is far too male–to androcentric! Gender-specific terms that are all-inclusive are antiquated.”

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