Friday, April 23, 2010

The Anthropocene: human harm, Earth's fate

New epoch to usher in cataclysmic extinction
Toronto Star: Humankind may be at the dawn of a new age, one that might not bring the word 'Aquarius' to mind. In fact, the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch may include the sixth-largest mass extinction in the Earth's history, according to a report in the journal Environmental Science & Technology...

Scientists behind the report say that in just two centuries, humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes that we actually might be ushering in a new geological time interval, and altering the planet for millions of years.

The scientists fear thousands of plants and animals will disappear in the new dawn because of the harm humans have inflicted through urbanization, pollution, travel, population growth, mining and the use of fossil fuels.

'It is suggested that we are in the train of producing a catastrophic mass extinction to rival the five previous great losses of species and organisms in Earth's geological past,' said co-author Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, of the University of Leicester.

The new time or epoch is named Anthropocene -- meaning new man -- because it would be the first space of geological time shaped by the action of a single species. The term has been in informal use for more than 10 years, but scientists have been gathering evidence that would support recognizing it as the successor to the current Holocene epoch.

'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,' the journal reported.

A working group of experts will consider changes human activities have brought to Earth's biodiversity and rock structure as well as the impact of factors like pollution and mineral extraction. It is hoped that within three years, their case will be presented to the International Union of Geological Sciences, which would decide whether the transition to a new epoch has been made.
Image: Footprints filled with muddy water sit in a rice field that has been eroded by clear-cutting. Source: National Geographic.