Is the Anthropocene a New Geological Epoch?

A new buzz word is hitting the science world: Anthropocene. It’s the name given to what some scientists are arguing should be a new geological epoch characterized by abnormal climate changes resulting from human activities. Paul Crutzen coined the term in 2000 in his article, The ‘Anthropocene’. The debate surrounding the formalization of the term centers on when exactly the Anthropocene begins and if it can really be defined as a geological epoch.

Right now, we are living in the Holocene epoch, which began around 11,000 b.c.e. when the last ice age started to dwindle. The Holocene is generally known as a warming period, but when did that natural warming period shift to warming due to human impacts? This is the crucial question for scientists, but varying opinions abound. Professor William F. Ruddiman of University of Virginia sees the Neolithic Revolution, when humans began to permanently cultivate and settle on land around 10,000 b.c.e. as the start of the Anthropocene and the end of the Holocene. Paul Crutzen in his article proposes 1850 as the start of the Anthropocene because it was the height of the Industrial age when both population and CO2 grew exponentially. A group of geologists and stratigraphers mark July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb test occurred and radioactive elements erupted in the atmosphere, as the beginning. Yet to other scientists, knowing the exact date is not critical and will be discovered in time.

But there is a benefit to knowing exactly when the Anthropocene began. Having a date to work from would point to where in the rock layers scientists can search for more evidence of change. This evidence could help classify the Anthropocene as a new epoch with its own distinct characteristics.

What many scientists can agree on, however, is that the catchy new term is beneficial as it promotes discussions about environmental changes on Earth due to human activities.