Leicester researchers searching for a ‘golden peak’ to formally define humanity’s current geological period – and recognize human impact on our planet – announced a major milestone in their analysis during a international conference on Wednesday.
Professors Jens Zinke, Mark Williams and Jan Zalasiewicz from the University of Leicester and PhD researcher Stephen Himson presented several candidates for unique reference points to define the Anthropocene at Haus der Kulturen’s ‘Unearthing the Present’ conference der Welt in Berlin.
The Anthropocene – suggestions that human impact has brought the Earth into the conditions of a new geological period or “epoch” – has been one of the most influential concepts of the past decade in geological research, Leicester researchers playing a leading role in its analysis.
The search for a “golden peak” is a key concept in the study of the Anthropocene, which would provide a single point of reference – chosen somewhere in the world – to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene, which could ultimately allow it to be formally defined as part of the geological time scale.
The attention of researchers is focused on the middle of the 20and century, a transformational “great acceleration” in our planet’s history that included the massive burning of fossil fuels and its effects on the climate, the global spread of man-made radioactive elements such as plutonium, and plastic debris and other pollutants, as well as changes in the Earth’s ecosystems.
Currently, research teams are studying in detail a dozen potential sites around the world, ranging from a core of Antarctic snow and ice to a peat bog in Poland, to a deep underground stalagmite in the Italian Alps.
Among the candidate sites, two are being studied by teams from the University of Leicester: a living coral on Australia’s Flinders Reef, whose annual growth layers are being analyzed by a team led by Professor Zinke from the School of Geography , geology and environment; and the San Francisco Bay mud layers, studied by a team led by Stephen Himson and Professor Williams within the same school, which contain a biological chronometer in the form of the remains of many organisms recently invading the bay.
The full list of candidate sites includes:
- Beppu Bay (Marine Sediment), Kyushu Island, Japan
- Crawford Lake (Sludge Lake), Ontario, Canada
- Ernesto Cave (rock deposits), Italy
- Flinders Reef (coral), Coral Sea, Australia
- Gotland basin (marine sediments), Baltic Sea
- Palmer Ice Core (ice sheet), Antarctic Peninsula
- San Francisco Estuary (marine sediments), California, USA
- Searsville Reservoir (Sludge Lake), California, USA
- Sihailongwan Lake (Sludge Lake), Jilin Province, China
- ?nie?ka Bog (peat layers), Poland
- Excavations of the Vienna Museum (urban soil), Austria
- West Flower Garden Bank (Coral), Gulf of Mexico
The results of these studies were unveiled for the first time at the Berlin meeting, to begin the discussion on which of these sites might have the most accurate and complete record of the Earth’s global changes, to allow it to represent the chosen beginning of the Anthropocene.
The announcement of these results is a major new development in the study of the Anthropocene, and the potential stepping stone towards its acceptance as a new, universally recognized phase in the history of our planet.
During the five-day Berlin event, scientists will also interact with artists, scholars, activists and the public in open discussion forums, via a series of online essays on various types of human impact. , and by opening an exhibition, Earth clues. This will provide unique insights into the processes of development of man-made planetary geological records.
Professor Zinke, whose research examines the role of massive corals and sedimentary records from the tropical oceans as recorders of environmental change, said:
“Corals provide the highest resolution record of anthropogenic impacts on tropical oceans and they do so over several centuries of continuous growth.”
“The massive corals of Flinders Reef have provided a continuous record of environmental change for over 300 years, starting in 1710, giving us insight into how human activity has altered the environment in remote coral reefs.”
“Flinders Reef corals recorded a clear radiocarbon peak between 1959 and 1963 shortly after nuclear bomb testing began in the 1950s. This is a unique signature of the Anthropocene.”
“The burning of fossil fuels left a clear signature in the coral skeleton in their carbon isotopic composition which began to decline around 1850. The coral shows us that light carbon from the burning of fossil fuels was taken up by the oceans of surface.”
Professor Williams, whose work focuses on human-induced changes to life and how human-built environments affect the delicate balance of our planet’s natural ecosystems, said:
“The San Francisco Estuary ecosystem has been completely altered by organisms introduced from as far away as Japan.
“Sometimes the newcomers completely dominate their adopted ecologies, their shells accumulating in the recent fossil record and leaving a clear geological signature of human impacts on the planet.
“Although the San Francisco estuary is very well studied, the same patterns, from introduced species, are becoming widespread on our planet.”
The Leicester research team also contributed to a paper about their findings, “Biological and Palaeontological signatures of the Anthropocene”, published by Anthropocene Curriculum.