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Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man [View All]

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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-11 01:08 PM
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Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man
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I invite you to take a moment of respite from Fukushima-watching. Zoom far out into the future with Elizabeth Kolbert and her stratigraphers, and contemplate what sort of long-term mark we humans will leave on the planet. Hint - it ain't cesium...

Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man

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?

Probably the most significant change, from a geologic perspective, is one that's invisible to us—the change in the composition of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions are colorless, odorless, and in an immediate sense, harmless. But their warming effects could easily push global temperatures to levels that have not been seen for millions of years. Some plants and animals are already shifting their ranges toward the Poles, and those shifts will leave traces in the fossil record. Some species will not survive the warming at all. Meanwhile rising temperatures could eventually raise sea levels 20 feet or more.

Long after our cars, cities, and factories have turned to dust, the consequences of burning billions of tons' worth of coal and oil are likely to be clearly discernible. As carbon dioxide warms the planet, it also seeps into the oceans and acidifies them. Sometime this century they may become acidified to the point that corals can no longer construct reefs, which would register in the geologic record as a "reef gap." Reef gaps have marked each of the past five major mass extinctions. The most recent one, which is believed to have been caused by the impact of an asteroid, took place 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period; it eliminated not just the dinosaurs, but also the plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and ammonites. The scale of what's happening now to the oceans is, by many accounts, unmatched since then. To future geologists, Zalasiewicz says, our impact may look as sudden and profound as that of an asteroid.
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