How scientists are mapping humanity’s footprint on Earth


Anthropocene (2011) Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor submerged off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. Source: Welcome to the Anthropocene

It’s been a common theme in this blog to discuss the different ways humans are shaping the world around them.

I’ve argued mankind has assumed an almost god-like posture over nature by positioning itself symbolically – if not literally, in the past – as the center of the universe, a result of its entrenched anthropocentrism.

Through humanity’s ability to guide the genetic pathways of different species (via selective breeding or genetic modification), natural selection has, almost, met its match. The cancer-like growth of the human population is now inversely proportionate to declining biodiversity, pushing the biosphere to a sixth mass extinction. Hell, we’re even beginning to rewrite the genetic alphabet.

Since the Industrial Revolution in particular, the globe has changed in unprecedented ways. Humans have altered the geochemical cycles which have governed the self-regulatory processes of the planet for billions of years, transferring carbon from within the earth out into the atmosphere and nitrogen from the atmosphere into the earth’s surface and oceans.

One thing this blog hasn’t fully looked into, though, is the longevity of these man-made changes. In other words, has humanity left a signature on the planet that will stand the test of time?

Two studies released this month have gone some way into answering this question.

The first, published in the journal Science, summarised all the evidence so far that humans have left an indelible geobiochemical fingerprint on the planet. The study has called for the global geological community to adopt the “Anthropocene” (a moniker denoting man-made change) as the current geological phase of the earth, replacing the Holocene.

The second, published in Nature, suggested human civilisation’s burning of fossil fuels has postponed the onset of the next couple of projected glacial periods, meaning we won’t see one for at least 100,000 years. Humans will have therefore altered the procession of ice ages, a process which has, quite literally, shaped the planet over billions of years.

Both studies suggest that observers will be able to discern the imprint of humanity’s dominance on Earth in millions of years to come.

My next blog will look at the role the Holocene played in crafting the human race to be able to perform its seismic trailblazing.

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