National Geographic Enter the Anthropocene-Age of Man

April 5, 2011 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Jack Martin for alerting me to the second in this year’s series of National Geographic articles on population.  You can see the full article and illustrations at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/age-of-man/kolbert-text The text is pasted below.  As I mentioned on December 31, when I distributed the first article, this is a year-long partnership between the PBS NewsHour (the Lehrer Report), National Geographic magazine, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting examining population issues.  If you were partying when I did the December 31 distribution, you can find it at https://www.populationmedia.org/2010/12/31/national-geographic-by-2045-global-population-is-projected-to-reach-nine-billion-can-the-planet-take-the-strain/

Enter the Anthropocene-Age of Man

It’s a new name for a new geologic epoch-one defined by our own massive impact on the planet. That mark will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled.

By Elizabeth Kolbert

Photograph by Jens Neumann/Edgar Rodtmann

The path leads up a hill, across a fast-moving stream, back across the stream, and then past the carcass of a sheep. In my view it’s raining, but here in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, I’m told, this counts as only a light drizzle, or smirr. Just beyond the final switchback, there’s a waterfall, half shrouded in mist, and an outcropping of jagged rock. The rock has bands that run vertically, like a layer cake that’s been tipped on its side. My guide, Jan Zalasiewicz, a British stratigrapher, points to a wide stripe of gray. “Bad things happened in here,” he says.

The stripe was laid down some 445 million years ago, as sediments slowly piled up on the bottom of an ancient ocean. In those days life was still confined mostly to the water, and it was undergoing a crisis. Between one edge of the three-foot-thick gray band and the other, some 80 percent of marine species died out, many of them the sorts of creatures, like graptolites, that no longer exist. The extinction event, known as the end-Ordovician, was one of the five biggest of the past half billion years. It coincided with extreme changes in climate, in global sea levels, and in ocean chemistry-all caused, perhaps, by a supercontinent drifting over the South Pole.

Stratigraphers like Zalasiewicz are, as a rule, hard to impress. Their job is to piece together Earth’s history from clues that can be coaxed out of layers of rock millions of years after the fact. They take the long view-the extremely long view-of events, only the most violent of which are likely to leave behind clear, lasting signals. It’s those events that mark the crucial episodes in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year story, the turning points that divide it into comprehensible chapters.

So it’s disconcerting to learn that many stratigraphers have come to believe that we are such an event-that human beings have so altered the planet in just the past century or two that we’ve ushered in a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Standing in the smirr, I ask Zalasiewicz what he thinks this epoch will look like to the geologists of the distant future, whoever or whatever they may be. Will the transition be a moderate one, like dozens of others that appear in the record, or will it show up as a sharp band in which very bad things happened-like the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician?

That, Zalasiewicz says, is what we are in the process of determining.

To read the full article, please click here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/age-of-man/kolbert-text


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