Indications of the Anthropocene Age: Nuclear Fallout to Microplastics

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Scientists argue that the Earth has been transformed to an extent that justifies the recognition of a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which marks the era of human influence. However, the question arises: is there any place on Earth untouched by human presence?


Greenhouse gases, microplastics, “forever chemicals,” disturbance of animal populations, and even discarded objects such as mobile phones and chicken bones have all been cited as evidence of the Anthropocene, which began in the mid-20th century.

Jan Zalasiewicz, a British geologist and chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, was asked if there was any place on Earth without signs of human influence. He responded that it is difficult to think of a more remote place than the Pine Island glacier in Antarctica. However, when scientists drilled below the glacier’s ice, they discovered traces of plutonium, a remnant of the nuclear weapon tests conducted since 1945. Zalasiewicz considers these radionuclides as a clear marker for the start of the Anthropocene.

The announcement of the Anthropocene Working Group’s choice for the epoch’s “golden spike” location, which represents the significant impact of human activities on the planet, is expected to be made soon. However, the official recognition of the Anthropocene as a geological time unit is still subject to evaluation by the global community of geologists.

The Impact of Human Activity

An undeniable hallmark of the Anthropocene is the substantial increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, leading to global warming. The extraction of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas has enabled humans to dominate the world in unprecedented ways. The energy consumption since 1950 surpasses that of the previous 11,700 years of the Holocene epoch. This energy has been utilized to support the expanding human population and its livestock, where humans and their domesticated animals account for 96% of the biomass of all land mammals.

Furthermore, humans have introduced invasive species and reshuffled species worldwide. The mass of human-made objects now outweighs the weight of all living things on the planet. These artifacts, termed “technofossils,” include fast-obsolete mobile phones and microplastics found even in the most remote areas. Substances such as PFAS or “forever chemicals” are also increasingly prevalent.

The Anthropocene markers extend to pesticides, fertilizers, increasing levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, and even human remains. These indicators will be preserved for future generations to gain insight into this distinct era of human influence.

However, the future remains uncertain. Mark Williams, a British paleontologist and member of the Anthropocene Working Group, suggests that a mass extinction is a likely possibility, emphasizing the need for a positive response from humanity. The only place on Earth believed to be free from human influence is possibly located beneath the ice in Antarctica. Yet, global warming poses a threat to the preservation of these pristine areas.

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Signs of the human era, from nuclear fallout to microplastics (2023, July 10)
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