The Anthropocene

Burj Khalifa Dubai

Flint tool

Cornish Quarry

In 2000 the scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer used the concept of the Anthropocene to denote the ever increasing influence of humans on Earth.

The word has entered the scientific and popular literature as a vivid expression of the degree of environmental change on planet Earth caused by humans.

Humans are now drivers of environmental change on a scale that is unique in Earth’s history.

Human driven biological, chemical and physical changes to the Earth’s system are so great, rapid and distinct that they may characterise an entirely new epoch – The Anthropocene.

Selected research

Landscape ImpactLandscape impact

How humans transform the landscape.


Earliest evidence of the AnthropoceneEarliest evidence of anthropogenic impact

Indicators for early human transformation of the landscape.


MappingMapping anthropogenic impact

How can evidence of the Anthropocene be mapped?


PreservationPreservation of anthropogenic deposits and features

Where and how might anthropogenic deposits be preserved?


FutureThe Anthropocene and the future

How population growth might affect the scale of landscape transformation.


What might characterise the Anthropocene?

For the Anthropocene to become a useful concept, it needs some quantification including:

'How might the Anthropocene be unique relative to the Holocene or the Pleistocene epochs that preceded it?'
'What criteria could we use to quantify when the Anthropocene began, and how might future generations of geologists recognise its signal in the rocks?'

These questions are being addressed by BGS scientists within a team of global collaborators.

How do humans transform the landscape?

Before the Industrial Revolution

The global human population was around 300 million in the year 1000 AD, 500 million at 1500 AD, and 790 million by 1750 AD (United Nations, 1999). It is estimated that the current global population is 7 billion (United Nations, 2011). Exploitation of resources was limited mostly to firewood and muscle power. Archaeological and fossil evidence seen in Holocene geology show how human activity increased.

Though human remains and artefacts are rare from this time, other indicators such as the presence of seeds and pollen from woodland trees and plants followed by pollen from crops shows how humans cleared large areas of woodland for agriculture. Soil was exposed to weathering in deforested regions and this is seen in pulses of sediment, which collected in valley bottoms. Mineral resources were dug from the ground and the landscape began to change but on a local scale.

Lead pollution is found in polar ice caps and peat bog deposits from Greco-Roman time (around 2110 years BP) onward (Dunlap et al., 1999). The time prior to the advent of major mechanisation, industrialisation and expansion in the use of fossil fuels was termed the ‘Pre-Anthropocene’ by Steffen et al., 2007.

During and after the Industrial Revolution

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750 to 1850) to the present day, global human population has climbed rapidly from under a billion to its current almost 7 billion, and it continues to rise. The exploitation of coal, oil, and gas in particular has enabled planet-wide industrialisation, construction, and mass transport. The period from ca. 1800 to 1945 was termed ‘The Industrial Era’ by Steffen et al., 1997.

Humans have caused a dramatic increase in erosion of the land surface and changes in sedimentation, through agriculture and construction, and also by other activities such as the damming of most major rivers. As well as these physical changes, the signal of chemical pollutants and radioactive waste that we have accumulated over the past 200 years will leave a signal that stretches into the distant future, and one which would be identified by geologists millions of years hence as identifying the Anthropocene. In recognition of the rapid modification by humans of the landscape through industrialisation and urbanisation from 1945, Steffen et al., used the term ‘The Great Acceleration: Stage 2 of the Anthropocene’.

The combined human driven changes to the Earth’s chemistry, biology and physical environment, including its rocks and soils, has the potential to leave a unique signature buried in the ground.

Current applied research at the BGS

Current work aims to address the range, type, scale and magnitude of anthropogenic land use change processes, their impacts and their geological significance.

A range of interdisciplinary work programmes across BGS aims to:

  • Develop schemes to classify anthropogenic landforms and sediments (artificial ground) in the United Kingdom.
  • Develop methods to model the 3D character, distribution and variability within artificial ground in urban environments including London, Glasgow and Leeds and their influence on ground conditions in the shallow subsurface.
  • Assess the nature, magnitude and global flux of anthropogenic sediment through an analysis of materials flows.
  • Define the geological significance of anthropogenic processes and impacts and their context in the proposed epoch of geological time; the Anthropocene.
  • Study anthropogenic pollutants related to urbanisation and industrialisation in coastal and estuarine sediments to improve coastal zone management and the potential impacts of climate change.

BGS author copy references accessible via NORA

Zalasiewicz, J, Williams, M, Haywood, A, and Ellis, M.  2012.  The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?   Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369, 835–841.

Price, S J, Ford, J R, Cooper, A H, and Neal, C.  2012.  Humans as major geological and geomorphological agents in the Anthropocene: the significance of artificial ground in Great Britain.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369, 1056–1084.

Zalasiewicz, J, Williams, M, Fortey, R, Smith, A, Barry, T L, Coe, A L, Bown, P R, Rawson, P F, Gale, A, Gibbard, P, Gregory, F J, Hounslow, M W, Kerr, A C, Pearson, P, Know, R, Powell, J, Waters, C, Marshall, J, Oates, M, and Stone, P.   2012.  Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369, 1036–1035.

Vane, C H, Chenery, S R, Harrison, I, Kim, A W, Moss-Hayes, V, and Jones, D G.  2012.  Chemical signatures of the Anthropocene in the Clyde estuary, UK: sediment-hosted Pb207/206Pb, total petroleum hydrocarbon, polyaromatic hydrocarbon and polychlorinated biphenyl pollution records.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369, 1085–1111.

de Beer, J, Price, S J, and Ford, J R.  2012.  3D modelling of geological and anthropogenic deposits at the World Heritage Site of Bryggen in Bergen, Norway.   Quaternary International. 251, 107–116.

Price, S J, Burke, H F, Terrington, R L, Reeves, H, Boon, D, and Scheib, A J. 2011. The 3D characterisation of the zone of human interaction and the sustainable use of underground space in urban and peri-urban environments: case studies from the UK. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Gesellschaft fur Geowissenschaften, 161 (2). 219–235.

Contact

Contact Dr Mike Ellis (Climate Change) and Simon Price (Urban Geoscience) for further information.