HUMAN activities are reshaping the evolution of the Earth, pushing it into a new and uncertain geological time period, a new study has concluded.
The landmark paper, co-authored by world-renowned climate scientist and Climate Councillor Professor Will Steffen, argues that the evidence is now overwhelming that humanity’s impact on the planet is rivalling the great forces of nature.
The authors argue the planet has now left the Holocene epoch that has existed for the past 11,700 years – the period in which human civilisation has developed and flourished – and entered a much less stable geological epoch called the Anthropocene.
The paper is a major contribution to the case for formally recognising the Anthropocene epoch at the International Commission for Stratigraphy convention in September in South Africa.
Professor Steffen said the paper was a planetary wake-up call.
“This study asks if humans have changed the Earth system, including its climate, to such an extent that the changes are now visible in the geological record of the planet. And the answer is unequivocally yes,” he said.
“Large-scale transitions in the geological timescale often mark either the blossoming of new forms of life or large-scale extinctions. It’s clear that the Anthropocene is heading for the latter.
“The climate is already changing, with an increasing rate of global sea level rise, accelerating loss of polar ice, and a worsening of many extreme weather events. And if current trends of human pressure on the biosphere are maintained, we’re heading for the first mass extinction event since the end of the dinosaurs.”
Prof Steffen said human civilisation had been collectively built and optimised for the stable climate of the Holocene, which is now being rapidly changed primarily by the burning of fossil fuels.
“The Holocene climate is the only climate state that we know for certain can support our complex human societies,” Prof Steffen said.
“The action we take now to stabilise the climate will determine whether or not our descendants will view this period as a spike in the Holocene, which is supposed to last a further 50,000 years, or whether this is the time when we allowed the climate to get out of control and irrevocably changed the Earth system, to the detriment of human wellbeing in the future.
“A rapid transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy is a must to safeguard our climate against further damage and ensure that human societies continue to prosper as they do today.”
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