The New Epoch

The Age of Man may soon be taking on an entirely new meaning as the geological epoch, the Anthropocene, awaits formal approval. The distinct geological periods and epochs of our planet’s 4.6 billion year history each signify specific events in earth’s past, but, humans have had such an impact on the environment that it is now time to leave our current epoch, the Holocene, behind. One habitat in which we know humans have had a significant influence is the marine environment, but, as this website will attempt to explain, what exactly are the consequences of this anthropogenic activity upon it, and to what exact will this affect life as we know it.

What is the Anthropocene?

The Anthropocene, a term originally coined by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000)1, refers to a new geological epoch which is dominated by intense human activity and was officially proposed by the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) at the 35th International Geological Congress (2016)2. Despite arguments regarding it’s start date, some suggesting the mid-20th Century, it would represent a significant step in the history of human kind and the end of the Holocene which has lasted since the end of the last Ice Age around 11,700 years ago 2,3,4.

To be accepted by the international geology community there must be a clear distinction between the Anthropocene and the Holocene evident in the sedimentary rock strata and ice beneath our feet. These markers can take on many forms but may include radioactive material from nuclear activity, processed metals and alloys, plastics and or ‘black carbon’ resulting from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Additionally, alterations in the patterns of erosion or sedimentation due to construction activity, anthropogenic influenced fossilisation and or differences in carbon dioxide and ozone trapped in ice core samples may also be used as boundary markers 5,6. Even whilst we wait for official acceptance, the impact of humans upon the natural world should not be ignored and instead efforts should be made to ensure everyone is aware of the influence we are having 2.

Why are the oceans important?

The oceans are a vital ecosystem for a large proportion of the global population, especially coastal and developing communities. It provides a vital source of nutrition, and through commercial activity, can play an important role in income generation and economic viability. Around 3.1 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their per capita animal protein consumption, it accounts for around 17% of global animal protein intake (6.7% of ‘all’ protein consumed), and is especially important for developing and ‘low-income food deficit’ communities. A role that is likely to increase in relevance as the human population continues to grow 7,8. Oceans are also important for global system and ecosystem functioning. Photosynthesising phytoplankton are thought to produce around two-thirds of the earth’s atmospheric oxygen and therefore helps to underpin life for all terrestrial animals 9. Additionally the oceans may be playing a substantial role in inhibiting the negative temperature raising effects of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases as they have absorbed about 40% of all anthropogenically emitted carbon dioxide from the start of the industrial revolution 10. It’s clear that the oceans are a vital component for the functioning of our planet and effort should be made to understand the potential damage humans are inflicting on it in order to hopefully prevent further consequences.

Make sure to check back here at marine-anthropocene.com for opinion pieces and research summaries regarding marine conservation and other topics associated with human impacts on the marine environment.   

Source information

  1. Crutzen P.J, Stoermer E.F. (2000). The “Anthropocene”.  Global Change Newsletter 41http://mfkp.org/INRMM/article/13558644
  2. Working group on the Anthropocene. What is the ‘Anthropocene’? – current definition and status. https://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/ [Date accessed: 22/08/2017]
  3. International Commission on Stratigraphy. International Chronostratigraphic Chart. http://www.stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics-chart-timescale [Date accessed: 22/08/2017]
  4. International Commission on Stratigraphy. GSSP Table – All Periods. http://www.stratigraphy.org/GSSP/index.html [Date accessed: 22/08/2017]
  5. Waters C.N. et al. (2016). The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351 6269 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6269/aad2622
  6. Jablonski D., Shubin N.H. (2015). The future of the fossil record: Paleontology in the 21st century. PNAS 112 16 http://www.pnas.org/content/112/16/4852.full
  7. Worldometers.info (2017). Worldometer. Dover, Delaware, USA. http://www.worldometers.info/
  8. FAO (2016).The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016. Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome. 200 pp. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5555e.pdf
  9. University of Leicester (2015). “Failing phytoplankton, failing oxygen: Global warming disaster could suffocate life on planet Earth.” ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151201094120.htm
  10. Fletcher S.E.M. (2017). Climate science: Ocean circulation drove increase in CO2 uptake. Nature 542 169–170 doi:10.1038/542169a

Author: Luke Williams

A graduate of Zoology (MBiolSci) from the University of Sheffield with an interest in marine conservation and wider ecological issues.

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