Evidence of a new epoch due to human impact on Earth

8 January 2016

The actions we take now to transition to clean energy and away from fossil fuels will help protect our planet from further damage and ensure future generations can continue to prosper.

An international team of scientists has found overwhelming evidence that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch due to the impact of human activity.

In a paper published in the latest edition of Science, the researchers have found human activity has left a marked and persistent record of impact on the Earth.

Co-author Professor Will Steffen from The Australian National University (ANU) said the evidence suggested the Earth has moved from the Holocene epoch of the past 11,700 years and into a new Anthropocene period.

"The Jurassic period was known for dinosaurs and the Holocene is the period during which human civilisation developed, but the new Anthropocene epoch will be marked by the widespread impacts that humans are having on our planet," Professor Steffen said.

Professor Steffen, a world-leading expert on climate and Earth System science, said the Anthropocene epoch would be recognised by the spread of material such as aluminium, concrete, plastic and nuclear material, as well as higher levels of greenhouse gases, climate change, species extinctions and a reshaping of coastal sedimentation processes.

The exact starting date of the Anthropocene remains uncertain, although it is likely to be around the middle of the 20th century, at the start of the nuclear age and a time of accelerating population growth and rapid industrialisation.

Professor Steffen, who is also a member of the Climate Council, said the study pointed to the need to stabilise the climate as well as to reduce human pressure on the biosphere.

"The actions we take now to transition to clean energy and away from fossil fuels will help protect our planet from further damage and ensure future generations can continue to prosper," he said.

Professor Steffen was the only Australian among the 24 members of the Anthropocene Working Group who co-wrote the study.

The Anthropocene Working Group will gather more evidence in 2016, which will help contribute to the case for formal recognition of the Anthropocene epoch. A decision will be made by the International Commission for Stratigraphy, which meets in South Africa in September.