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Is Planet Earth Under New Management?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 08:00 AM

A hundred million years from now, when we're all dead and gone, a team of geologists will be digging in a field somewhere ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

... and they will discover, buried in the rocks below, a thin layer of sediment — very thin, about the width of a cigarette paper, says British stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz. That skinny strip, when they look close, will send what's called a "biostratigraphic signal" that something enormous happened back in our era, something life changing, planet reorganizing, even earth shaping. The evidence, when they look closely, will be visible in that same skinny layer all over the world. In her new bookThe Sixth Extinction, Kolbert describes what they'll find.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

For starters, Kolbert says, below this layer, geologists will see fossil remnants of all kinds of large animals: elephants, buffalo, rhinos, lions, tigers, whales, giant turtles (and deeper down, even earlier — saber tooth tigers, mammoths and giant sloths). Their big bones will litter those older rocks. But above this layer — after our era — they disappear. Something killed off the Earth's megafauna.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

During this same time, they will discover that animals and plants that used to be in one place — gingko trees in China, tulips in Asia, starlings in Europe — suddenly moved all over the world. Grasses found on one continent now strangely appear on four continents. Flowering plants, rats, goats, pigeons, kudzu, ants, inexplicably spread their territories across enormous oceans, climates, time zones. Specific life forms — chickens, cattle, roses, wheat, rice — turn up everywhere. Something moved them, though they may not know who or how. ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Also at this time, bits of air trapped in the rock will show that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped sharply — to about five hundred parts per million, higher than at any other point in the previous 800,000 years. So in this era, the chemical composition of the atmosphere changed, and changed very suddenly. ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

And down in the soil where supplies of nitrogen had been relatively rare, coming from existing populations of plants and animals – something changed too. Out of nowhere, tons and tons of extra nitrogen appear. The supply jumps feverishly — feeding plants as never before. What happened?

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Digging on six continents, geologists will discover that almost all of the Earth's major rivers, instead of winding and meandering across the planet's surface, were altered — blocked, re-routed or straightened. In some cases those rivers were dammed and pointed to new destinations. Enormous lakes were starved of water, and disappeared.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

And surveying the continents, they will discover that roughly half the land on Earth that's free of ice had been significantly altered (yes, half) to provide space for crops, reservoirs, mining, logging, quarrying, housing, commerce, or transportation. Wild spaces continued to exist, of course, mostly as rainforests, deserts, tundra and the higher mountain ranges, but they were a smaller and smaller proportion of the planet, sometimes crisscrossed by pipelines and affected by climate change. The densely built spaces, meanwhile ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

... got much bigger, affecting the air, the climate, biodiversity, nutrient recycling and soil structure.

Millions and millions of years from now, all these changes will still be visible — to a geologist's practiced eye — right there in the rock, in that sliver. And the scale of the change and its subsequent effects will be so pronounced that geologists will want to give it a name, to mark the shift. Geologists do that when the change is big enough; we call the era of great dinosaurs the Jurassic; after that, the Cretaceous. What about this period? Right now, geologists call our time the Holocene, from the Greek for "entirely recent". Fair enough.

When Future Geologists Wonder ...

But looking backward, future geologists will want to know what caused all this change?

Volcanoes don't explain it. Incoming asteroids don't explain it. Climate cycles don't explain all of it — not the rivers, not the nitrogen, not all those structures and byways.

It will gradually become clear that some animal on the planet, proliferating, spreading, carrying, moving, building, designing, inventing, was largely responsible.

Which is why the chemist Paul Crutzen, sitting at a science meeting a few years ago, interrupted a talk where the speaker kept saying "Holocene," and blurted out, "Let's stop it!" The room got quiet. Crutzen had won a Nobel Prize for his work on the ozone layer, and laureates, I suppose, are allowed to have hissy fits – at least in science meetings.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

The earth, Crutzen argued, is being dramatically changed, and the changer, this time, is us: humankind ("anthro" in the Greek). "We are no longer in the Holocene," he told the group. "We are in the Anthropocene." It's a coinage he may have borrowed from biologist Eugene Stoermer, but here's the logic: The Earth is no longer being shaped mainly by natural forces, forces that operate on their own with a logic of their own. Our little blue dot is now, increasingly, sculpted by one of its inhabitants. This is our planet now. We've taken over.

Some geologists think this idea is too radical, premature — not to mention vain, self-regarding, transient and overdramatized. They argue that we humans have made little scratches on the surface of things, but have changed nothing fundamental. The world doesn't need us. It will hardly notice when we're gone. All we will leave is a layer in the sand.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

But the idea isn't going away. Jan Zalasiewicz heads the committee that is considering new names for our present epoch, and he supports a change. There are competing candidates — "Anthrocene" (from reporter Andy Revkin), the "Homogenocene" (from biologist Michael Samways). The International Commission on Stratigraphy will hold a meeting in 2016 to consider candidates for renaming this epoch we're in. There will probably be a vote, and the question for the group will be, is planet Earth under new management — or no?

Elizabeth Kolbert describes the Holocene debate in her new book,The Sixth Extinction.


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Comments [9]


I found this to be very eye opening. I believe that every person on the planet should read this so that they can be enlightened on the impact that our race has had on the earth. We are a cancer to a planet that serves millions of other living beings... what gives us the right to destroy what is so dear just so we can maintain our materialistic lifestyles that are clouded with meaningless toys and desires.

May. 02 2014 06:32 PM

Archeologists often rely on geology for explanation to specific observations. Is there a reversal suggested here? Are geologists becoming more aware and interested in anthropology for insight?

Are we now going to accept humans as part of nature; not just observers of nature?

Mar. 09 2014 02:18 PM

We are in the Age of Child Pollution, which has spoiled the planet. We would not be in the Anthropocene had there not been the exponential, irresponsible increase in population during the 20th century.

Mar. 05 2014 03:34 AM
Patrick from Phoenix, AZ

I like your words Cris, I feel the same way. The one that tells you to put the gun to your head is immature at best. We can't last much longer, too bad, too late, we will wake up and see what we've done at death's door. So much destroyed, so little left, will the only world with life survive? You bet! Our penance is to sit by and wait for the real end of the world. No more reincarnations unless you want to be an amoeba. There's no other place in this universe, yes we are alone, yes this universe was made for us. Such a waste little brother...

Mar. 04 2014 10:14 PM
Chris from CA

Evolution will take care of the fact that 'intelligent' and self-aware species are just not meant to last so long and inevitably will self-destruct eventually, if they don't succumb to a natural extinction event before their time is up naturally.

Nature regulates itself regardless and if there is a species that is not part of a functioning sustainable cycle, it vanishes one way or the other.
And there will be nobody afterwards who cares nor will have any awareness of that extinct species.

Although there are endless stars in the universe, I am not convinced that there are other 'intelligent' and self-aware species other than ours who evolved much beyond our current stage.
We humans don't have any proof about other 'intelligent' and self-aware species that have ever existed other than us, let alone finding even one microbial life form outside of planet earth.

We rather fantasize and marvel about hypotheticals or belief in some higher all-knowing power, while our own very existence is bound to fade into oblivion and out of control.
Humans don't like chaos and not having control, although its a natural law. And the struggle to gain control and pure greed is also what is bringing us down eventually.

Life as we know it seems very unique and rare, but humans as a whole may never evolve into having that awareness and ability to sustain their species with one common self-sustaining interest.

Nevermind - The true stars are landing on the red carpet in Hollywood as I am babbling these unforgettable moments away...

Mar. 02 2014 07:02 PM

If you're so sure it's "time to go" why haven't you put a gun in your mouth yet? What's the hold up? Suicide is a personal decision. But if you believe it's the way to go, then have at it. KILL YOUR SELF!

Mar. 02 2014 01:39 AM
Mary Russell from Colorado

My new bumper sticker will read, IT'S TIME FOR US TO GO NOW. I loved reading your statement, "The world doesn't need us. It will hardly notice when we're gone. All we will leave is a layer in the sand." As I watch, and engage in conversations attempting to stop, the destruction of the rivers, air and land where I live (Garfield County, Colorado), by the oil and gas industry (with full support of our County Commish), I keep wanting to believe it will end because the humans that insist on pursuing this course of energy development will come to realize it is an abomination on the planet. As a woman, it sickens me when I am in a room full of men and women who only see their own, personal financial wealth when they look at the holes they've dug and the pipes they've laid in the name of "energy development" for the rest of us.

The 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's death, April 15, 1964, is near. She died at the young age of 56, of cancer, rendering herself free of the current condition of world-wide environmental contamination due to increased levels of chemical toxicity, of which she so eloquently spoke out against when she wrote SILENT SPRING.

Whatever this era becomes known as, I know it has become a time not so unlike the human scourge the Nazi's leveled on Europe. The victims are just as scared, just as helpless, and many just as blinded by the promise of power. Earth, regardless, is changing its patterns, and will take care of us - through elimination or through transformation.

Mar. 01 2014 01:05 PM
Troy from San Bernardino, CA

I wonder if octopi will have the equivalent of geologists. If so, will they think of the 30% of the earth surface that rises above their cities as "mostly unexplored grand mesas"? Will our future descendants even be capable of the abstract thought necessary to understand geology? A million years is a long time for most species.

Feb. 26 2014 09:58 PM


Feb. 26 2014 03:54 PM

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