“We have become a geophysical force and we are bringing the planet to a point that has never been.”

Carton Virto, Eider

Elhuyar Zientzia

Under the title “When did the Anthropocene begin?”, the Anthropocene team has proposed a specific date for the beginning of a new geological period in the journal Quaternary International: 16 July 1945, the day of the first nuclear explosion. At the request of the International Stratigraphy Committee, this working group analyzes whether human influence on the planet is sufficient to designate a new geological era. Most of the team members believe that yes, that the Anthropocene has enough “merits” for this, including geologist Alejandro Cearreta of the UPV. In the debate on anthropocene he says that “apart from geology there is also ideology”, without fear. Despite being a geologist, he does not want to lose sight of the social and economic dimension of the Anthropocene.
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Ed. Marisol Ramirez/Argazki Press
What is the role of the Anthropocene team?

The anthropocene work team was launched by the International Stratigraphy Committee about six years ago. Since the year 2000 Paul Crutzen proposed the term has spread at full speed, both between scientific disciplines as humanities, economy, etc. The concept has had a huge impact and diffusion. Given that it refers to a stage in the life of our planet, we can say that it is up to geologists, by profession, to determine what it is, if it is something.

Our task is to analyze whether the concept has sufficient merits to be a geological epoch. And in turn, to see what category of geological scale they would have –form, period, epo-, when it would begin, what characteristics it has, what evidence it would be based on... We have been working on it for five years and the debate will remain open until 2016. At that time we will present our report at the International Geology Congress.

Do we talk about these tests in the recently published article [When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal]. However, I want to emphasize that not everyone has the same vision of the Anthropocene in the work team. This last article, for example, has been signed by 26 members, not all.

What are these different visions?

In short, there are four main ideas about the Anthropocene. One, the original, the definition given by Crutzen in 2000, says Anthropocene XVIII. It began at the end of the 20th century with the invention of the steam engine and the birth of the Industrial Revolution and industrial capitalism.

The second idea is supported above all by the world of archaeology and says that the Anthropocene left in the Neolithic when our species began to domesticate animals and plants.

Right now it is the third idea of the team, and says Anthropocene XX. Since the mid-twentieth century [in the article there are arguments in favor of this idea].

The last idea points out that the Anthropocene has not yet begun, but that it is possible that in the future it will begin if we continue to transform the planet with the same intensity as today. The proponents of this idea are the most conservative and believe that if you have to define such a concept you will have to do so in the future.

There is no agreement of all nor will it exist. Finally, at the end of all discussions, geology institutions will vote and place one or the other. In any case, although the community of geologists considers that the term is not worth being a geological epoch, it should not be ruled out that it is considered a cultural epoch. And there the consensus is total. The Palaeolithic, the Mesolithic, the Neolithic are times of cultural evolution of our species, although they are not collected in geological terminology; the Anthropocene could be equivalent. The term does not disappear because it is deeply rooted. Another thing is to recognize it as a geological epoch with certain characteristics.

However, the article showed support for his declaration as a geological period.

Indeed. The article is a majority position of the team.

Why XX. mid-century, and specifically the explosion of the first nuclear bomb?

We reached the exact date, the day of the explosion of the first nuclear bomb, in part, by deduction. It is also true that it has a journalistic touch.

The graphs show that all indicators, both socio-economic and environmental impact, have soared since the 1950s. Both paper consumption and human population, as well as the number of inhabitants of cities, etc. All this affects the environment: C02, increased methane and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, species extinction... But for what these data say to be accepted in geology, there must be a sedimentary record of these measurable alterations. Well, we think that there are geological records of these alterations, our job is to analyze what evidence indicates that the materials deposited from the 50s are different from those deposited previously.

One of the biggest differences with respect to the previous ones is the presence of radioactive isotopes, cesium-137 and plutonium-239. They are artificial isotopes that originate from atomic explosions of the atmosphere. These compounds lead us to their origin, and this to the first nuclear bomb that exploded in the atmosphere, on July 16, 1945. From a geological point of view, these radioactive isotopes have the advantage that they are isochronous, that is, they disperse all over the planet at once, regardless of where the explosions are. Accordingly, taking this starting date, the entire planet would enter the Anthropocene at the same time.

Not in the other options?

Other possible starting dates of the anthropocene, the Neolithic or the Industrial Revolution, do not have that characteristic, and that is the main criticism made to them. They did not start simultaneously in every corner of the planet. They emerged in concrete places and expanded over time. And from a geological point of view, the signal indicating a change of the planet's epoch should not be intentionally synchronous.

View from the space of land converted into agricultural in Sudan. Ed. ANDÉN

It is true that the aforementioned radioactive isotopes do not appear exactly in 1945. They appear from 1953 because a minimum density of isotopes is necessary for the signal to be detectable. There is also a reduction since 1963, since the superpowers of the time agreed not to perform atomic explosions in the atmosphere, but although the cesium-137 signal will disappear for a couple of decades, probably the plutonium-239 will remain there for thousands of years.

In the end it is very important to define exactly what the Anthropocene is, and there is much of the debate. Anthropocene is not the time when human beings have left a mark on the planet, since, in short, we are leaving traces since the first human beings emerged. Anthropocene would define when the planet has come out of its natural variability. That is the question. We have become geophysical forces and we take the planet to a point that has never existed. Seeing in what direction and, above all, with what intensity and speed we are transforming the planet makes it possible to define the Anthropocene as a geological time and not just as a human footprint.

What will condition the acceptance or rejection of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch?

When we look at the past it is easier to delimit geological times, since we have a complete perspective of time and also human beings are not involved. But in this case, in addition to geology, there is ideology. And it is that recognizing the existence of a geological period called Anthropocene makes us wonder what our role is on the planet, what we are doing with our planet, with other living beings and with ourselves. And many people don't want to accept this question, whether geological or external. It's something like what's going on with climate change. Although the scientific consensus is 99.9%, there are deniers, companies, big money and interests, with the aim of making noise, not to change the current economic and social model.

To recognize anthropocene as a geological time, and not only cultural, is to recognize that the planet is transforming, which, logically, means that things are being done economically and industrially wrong. But that is one of the greatness of our species. We are a cultural species that allows us to destroy it, but also to be aware of that destruction and repair the damage.

Anthropocene has an indisputable social dimension. Also among geologists?

We wonder about the planet we live on as people and as scientists. As a geologist, with the tools offered by our science, we see that there is a sedimentary record different from the previous one. From there we build the explanation, reasoning, agents and processes that have led us to this situation and publish them in scientific forums. But the Anthropocene is fascinating that it has spread like a stain of oil, through the rest of scientific and non-scientific disciplines, which have seen a conceptual framework to explain the great problems that we have today on the planet in economics, in sociology. Pollution, climate change, species extinction... offers great advantages for the analysis of all these processes.

XVIII. and XIX. For centuries naturalists warned about the impact of man on the planet. But then there was no social awareness to awaken that idea. The idea of anthropocene was poured out on a public opinion and a scientific community that realizes that we are transforming the planet. I think that is the key to the great success the concept has had. Sometimes ideas have some strength when they are said.

Does the choice of a date as accurate as the beginning of the anthropocene have some symbol? In short, on the geological scale day, month and year are completely despicable units.
First nuclear explosion. It took place on July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico (USA).

The date is a motto in a sense. The origin of the radioactive isotopes of the atmosphere leads us to the first bomb, from which others arrived. In addition, we know the day, hour and second when the button of this historical event was stepped on. Nor should we forget that nuclear has a great force in our imaginary.

What are the next steps the Anthropocene team will take?

All these publications are contributions to the final report. The next step is the completion of the report for the summer of 2016 and its presentation at the International Geology Congress in South Africa. From there, discussions will begin in the corresponding forums and bodies, including the International Stratigraphy Committee, to assess the report and make contributions.

The controversies over all geological times have a setback and, in this case, I think the debate will be especially long, because it makes a harsh criticism of the industrial capitalist society in which we live. It is one thing to discuss the disappearance of the dinosaurs and we will be sorry or not because they disappeared, but they were other worlds, of our planet, but distant. This has political consequences and ideological connotations. It will happen as with climate change, there will be opposing positions and the geological community is very conservative.

It will not be easy to narrow the debate to geology...

I don't want or want. I think it is very important that geology have something to say in this debate about our role on the planet. In the end, geologists have ceased to look back and have begun to look a little backwards and to the present. With the future I dare not, because our science does not make predictions. But asking about the present and the recent past is very good for the profession, for my image. And, by the way, it allows us to overcome the complex of the ugly duckling of the sciences.

However, not all members of the work team look alike at this social aspect of the Anthropocene, some are more conservative. We have a challenge. It is clear that it is not up to me to publish an article on politics or ideology, I have no training or tools for it. But as a scientist I have to associate a measurable geological process and a historical process of environmental impact and explain it as a consequence of industrial capitalism, that is. If that's something we can do, that's what geologists do.

Alejandro Cearreta and members of his research team in Urdaibai, collecting sediment samples. Ed. Related information
How did you start with the Anthropocene team?

They invited me. Since 1988 I have been at UPV-EHU and before that I did my thesis in England on recent materials [geologically]. The subject was not in fashion, but geology has changed a lot. Traditionally he has researched hard rocks, old things, the sooner the better; it is called deep geology (half-laugh). I was interested in new materials, recently. In the field of quaternary research I saw the opportunity to combine these interests with my concern and ideology, because I am very interested in human influence on the planet. When the concept of anthropocene appeared, a reference researcher in the area agreed with me for the work team, and so I went. I shared my concerns as a scientist and as a person, and I have to recognize that I am very satisfied with the discussions we have.

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