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Nailing Down the Anthropocene


People–scientists yes, but also anthropologists, environmental historians, activists, and others–have debated for some time whether we are living in the “Anthropocene,” a new era of geological time defined by what humans are doing to the globe. This week–with temperatures in the water off Florida surpassing 90 degrees, mass flooding in Vermont, and record heat in the Southwest–makes it pretty clear that even without hard scientific evidence, this is basically true. But we also now have hard scientific evidence based on studies in the sediments of a Canadian lake.

A group of scientists said Tuesday the best evidence for humanity’s overwhelming impact on the planet could be found at Crawford Lake in Milton, Ontario. The lake’s finely layered sediments contain a thousand-year record of environmental history, culminating in an explosion of man-made disruption around the middle of the 20th century. That’s when scientists say human activities — from nuclear weapons tests and fossil fuel combustion to deforestation and global trade — began to leave an indelible imprint on Earth’s geologic record.

The announcement marks a crucial step in a years-long effort to determine whether people have altered the planet enough to launch a new epoch in geologic time. Since 2009, an obscure scientific body called the Anthropocene Working Group has accumulated evidence that Earth’s chemistry and climate are fundamentally different from the conditions of the last several thousand years. The final requirement was to identify a “golden-spike” — a spot in the geologic record that perfectly preserved the dangerous transformation humans have wrought.

Crawford Lake shows that “all the different components of the Earth system and the way they interact with one another are fundamentally different than they used to be,” said Francine McCarthy, a professor of Earth sciences at Brock University in Ontario who led the working group’s research on the lake. “We felt it was the best place to illustrate this existential issue.”

Speaking from the International Congress on Stratigraphy — a semiregular meeting of researchers who study the phases of Earth’s past — working group members recommended that the Anthropocene be established as a new epoch beginning in 1950, with Crawford Lake as its golden spike.

Wouldn’t have expected 1950 per se, but we can debate that.

I really question how long this planet will be livable for humans in anything like their current civilization. Like, will it last my lifetime? I am increasingly skeptical. As for those of you who know about all this but just have the faith to bring children into this, well, you have a lot more optimism about the future than I do. We could cut carbon emissions to 0 TODAY and this crisis will still get worse every year for the next century or so. We aren’t going to do that either.

Of course, that doesn’t even get us to the mass extinction event going on.

Humans, a species smart enough to change the world, but not smart enough to manage how to change the world.

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