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The Anthropocene - A New Epoch/Series or a Geological Event?


An ongoing, intensive debate in the geoscientific community revolves around this core question: Can the Anthropocene be formalised as a new epoch (stratigraphically marking the end of the Holocene) or would it rather qualify as a geological event?

Since its formation in 2009, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is evaluating data on anthropogenic impact on the Earth System to scientifically formalise the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch. Following the standards set by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), this definition of a new epoch, as stratigraphically distinct from the previous Holocene, requires a basis in the form of a so-called ‘golden spike’ (GSSP) – a clear signal that can be globally measured to mark the transition from one geological epoch to another. The AWG’s work yielded strong evidence for a beginning of the Anthropocene during the ‘Great Acceleration’ in the mid-20th century. Geological strata from this period of industrialisation and globalisation contains a number of geological proxy signals, the sharpest one being a global increase of artificial radionuclides caused by the thermonuclear bomb tests in the early 1950s. A majority of the AWG’s members propose to base a formalisation of the Anthropocene epoch on these findings.

But not all scientists agree. Some members of the AWG suggest that a more practical approach would be to designate the Anthropocene as a geological event rather than a new epoch. This controversial proposal is currently discussed within the AWG and the geoscientific community, and it concerns issues of yet broader significance for the Anthropocene discourse. The question whether we are now living in an epoch distinctly and irreversibly marked by human impact on the planet comes with social, political and cultural implications as well – all of which are at stake in the debate.

To find out more, see the links below for recent AWG publications and further information.

City at night, highway interchange in the foreground, the horizon lined with skyscrapers, millions of artificial light sources in white and orange

Large-scale human energy consumption pushes at planetary boundaries - Is this still the Holocene?

Plastic litter covering a beach

The Anthropocene - An Epoch marked by drastic human impacts on the Earth System