The mineral signature of the Anthropocene in its deep-time context
Published:January 01, 2014
Jan Zalasiewicz, Ryszard Kryza, Mark Williams, 2014. "The mineral signature of the Anthropocene in its deep-time context", A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene, C. N. Waters, J. A. Zalasiewicz, M. Williams, M. Ellis, A. M. Snelling
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The Earth has shown a systematic increase in mineral species through its history, with three ‘eras’ comprising ten ‘stages’ identified by Robert Hazen and his colleagues (Hazen et al. 2008), the eras being associated with planetary accretion, crust and mantle reworking and the influence of life, successively. We suggest that a further level in this form of evolution has now taken place of at least ‘stage’ level, where humans have engineered a large and extensive suite of novel, albeit not formally recognized minerals, some of which will leave a geologically significant signal in strata forming today. These include the great majority of metals (that are not found natively), tungsten carbide, boron nitride, novel garnets and many others. A further stratigraphic signal is of minerals that are rare in pre-industrial geology, but are now common at the surface, including mullite (in fired bricks and ceramics), ettringite, hillebrandite and portlandite (in cement and concrete) and ‘mineraloids’ (novel in detail) such as anthropogenic glass. These have become much more common at the Earth’s surface since the mid-twentieth century. However, the scale and extent of this new phase of mineral evolution, which represents part of the widespread changes associated with the proposed Anthropocene Epoch, remains uncharted. The International Mineralogical Association (IMA) list of officially accepted minerals explicitly excludes synthetic minerals, and no general inventory of these exists. We propose that the growing geological and societal significance of this phenomenon is now great enough for human-made minerals to be formally listed and catalogued by the IMA, perhaps in conjunction with materials science societies. Such an inventory would enable this phenomenon to be placed more effectively within the context of the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, and would help characterize the strata of the Anthropocene.
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A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene
Humankind has pervasively influenced the Earth’s atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere, arguably to the point of fashioning a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. To constrain the Anthropocene as a potential formal unit within the Geological Time Scale, a spectrum of indicators of anthropogenically-induced environmental change is considered, and shown as stratigraphical signals that may be used to characterize an Anthropocene unit, and to recognize its base. This volume describes a range of evidence that may help to define this potential new time unit and details key signatures that could be used in its definition. These signatures include lithostratigraphical (novel deposits, minerals and mineral magnetism), biostratigraphical (macro- and micro-palaeontological successions and human-induced trace fossils) and chemostratigraphical (organic, inorganic and radiogenic signatures in deposits, speleothems and ice and volcanic eruptions). We include, finally, the suggestion that humans have created a further sphere, the technosphere, that drives global change.