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The New World of the Anthropocene

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Amaury Triaud.

Human civilization has grown around the stable shorelines and climate, and amid the diverse biosphere of, the last ten millenia or so of the Holocene Epoch: the latest of many interglacial phases of the Quaternary Ice Age, and the one that the created the world we live in. The growth of human civilization has now put that stability into question. With the explosion in both human numbers and energy use since the Industrial Revolution has come sharp and large-scale changes to landscape, biosphere and climate. These rapid and large-scale changes have led to the suggestion that we are now living through the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch – an interval of geological time dominated by human influence. The term was proposed just two decades ago by Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, and has since been widely used – and sharply debated. Its analysis needs converting the various kinds of environmental change into different kinds of geology. Physical change is most strikingly represented by the spread of the ‘urban stratum’, the refashioning of sand, clay and limestone into our buildings, foundations and transport systems. Biological changes include the ongoing mass extinction event and the effect of invasive species (while human-made ‘anthroturbation’ is as extraordinary as anything in the fossil record). Chemical changes include the reshaping of the Earth’s natural carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. The combined change is of a scale to leave a signal, in strata now forming, that will persist for many millions of years. Of more immediate significance is how this new concept in Earth history might be used to help us navigate the conditions of a changing planet over the decades and centuries to come.

This talk is part of the Physics and Astronomy Colloquia series.

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