Geological controversy over the human age continues

Geological controversy over the human age continues

The Anthropocene is seen as the era in which humans influence the Earth more than traditional geological forces such as volcanic eruptions, plate tectonics and weathering. But a working group’s proposal to declare the Anthropocene an official new geological epoch was recently rejected. And that has caused a lot of controversy in recent weeks.

That working group had been established in 2009, and ten years later it had concluded that the Anthropocene should become a new geological epoch, starting “around 1950”. In recent years, the working group has selected twelve places on earth where the influence of humans is particularly visible, for example through the appearance of radioactive substances or remains of fossil combustion. From those twelve locations, Canada’s Crawford Lake was chosen as the reference site for the Anthropocene.

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The working group, which operates within the International Union of Geological Sciences, then submitted its proposal last October to the subcommittee on the geological division of the Quaternary (from 2.58 million years ago to the present). Within that subcommittee, twelve members voted against the proposal, four voted in favor. Even before the outcome of the vote was officially announced, it had already been leaked to The New York Times, who wrote about it on March 5. A day later, four members of the working group responded, two of whom are also on the subcommittee. On the website The Conversation they called the process of voting controversial and contrary to the subcommittee’s bylaws. They wanted the vote annulled.

“There was a lot of impatience within the subcommittee to reach a vote,” acknowledges geologist Kim Cohen of Utrecht University, who is on the subcommittee and voted in favor.

Most completely preserved

According to Cohen, much of the disagreement revolves around the question of whether the last seventy years – i.e. the period from about 1950 – also falls within the domain of geology. “Many geologists don’t think so. But I find that very conservative.” Cohen himself believes that geology continues to the present. “And the closer to the present, the shorter the geological periods, because recent times are also the most completely preserved and most diversely studied.”

Another frequently used argument is the fact that humans have been influencing large parts of the earth for thousands of years. Supporters say that this influence has grown explosively since 1950.

Then there is the argument that the word Anthropocene is now widely used in science and in society. Why should geology be allowed to hijack it? But according to Cohen, there is no question of hijacking. He calls the Anthropocene “a mature term that can be used in different ways by different people in different contexts.”

The issue surrounding the vote has been submitted to the highest committee that deals with the classification of all geological eras. It approved the vote last Wednesday.