Scientists Say We Could Be in a New Epoch

The Anthropocene likely started in the 1950s, scientists say
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 12, 2023 2:30 AM CDT
Start of a New Geological Epoch Could Be Represented by This Lake
Trees surround Crawford Lake in Milton, Ontario., on Monday, July 10, 2023.   (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press via AP)

After 15 years spent working on the question, a scientific panel announced Tuesday it believes that, yes, the planet has entered a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene, derived from the Greek terms for "human" and "new," is described by the New York Times as "the human age" and the Washington Post as "the age of humans." Essentially, as NPR explains, it's the period that, the panel says, started sometime between 1950 and 1954 and has been marked by humans having a particularly strong, long-lasting, transformative, Earth-wide impact. Think climate change, pollution, deforestation, global trade, and species loss.

The panel confirmed Tuesday that it has chosen Crawford Lake, in a secluded part of Ontario, to represent the start of the new epoch, because the lake contains clear evidence of the impact humans have had on the worldwide geologic record. Things like changes in plutonium and radiocarbon (caused by nuclear detonations) and fly ash from increased fossil fuel burning are "a reflection of that tipping point in Earth history when the Earth system ceased to behave the way it had for 11,700 years," when the current epoch, the Holocene, began, says a micropaleontologist who sits on the panel, called the Anthropocene Working Group.

Epochs are much smaller geologic time periods than eras, but, similar to eras, they are marked by momentous change. For example, the meteorite that crashed into the planet 66 million years ago, dooming the dinosaurs, started the Cenozoic Era, or the age of mammals, which we are still in. Geological time is measured in eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages; we have been in the Quaternary Period for almost 2.6 million years and will be as long as permanent ice remains on Earth's poles. The panel proposes that in addition to a new epoch, we also entered a new age in the 1950s, which they've dubbed the Crawfordian Age.

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As for the current epoch, the panel will now write up a proposal to recognize the Anthropocene epoch and a whole bunch of committees still need to vote on it after that, meaning its ratification is, as the Times puts it, "far from guaranteed." Some scientists remain skeptical, especially since this epoch would still be so new. As the Post explains, "all other epochs have been named millennia after they occurred." The scientists plan to measure plutonium levels at the bottom of Crawford Lake to determine a specific start date of the proposed new epoch. (More geology stories.)

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