The Anthropocene: Where do I stand?

The Anthropocene is a relatively newly proposed epoch; first proposed by Paul Crutzen in 2000. I first really heard about it in 2010, when I attended a conference at the Royal Geological Society in Burlington House, London. The idea had captivated me as a young fresher, primarily as the epoch is based around the ideology that humans have impacted the society so much so that we have scarred the landscape; that in years to come, it will be obviously apparent where humans became the dominant species and altered the Earth’s natural equilibrium status.

 Paul Crutzen has stated (as in Slaughter, 2012):

humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes to our world that we actually might be ushering in a new

geological time interval, and altering the planet for millions of years. (They). . .contend that recent human activity,

including stunning population growth, sprawling megacities and increased use of fossil fuels, have changed the planet

to such an extent that we are entering what they call the Anthropocene Epoch. . . (It) represents a new phase in the

history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the

fate of one determines the fate of the other.

 

But, this notion has been refuted. Presently, I am not sure where I stand. This blog entry aims to review the reasons for and against the proposal of the Anthropocene: perhaps the most controversial epoch ever to have existed.

 The implication of a new geological epoch, marked primarily upon the accelerated human influence upon the Earth, has implications for society. The first issues that come to my mind are those born from politics and international energy players, for example. The Anthropocene primarily implies that humans are altering the natural balance of the Earth. In some regards, the epoch may be used as evidence for supporting the debate of anthropogenically induced climate change and elevated greenhouse gases. Therefore, it is important to seek an understanding of where arguments are sourced from in order to remove bias. Climate scientists are, in general, empirical and searching for the truth: there are few climate scientists who will exaggerate their findings, as that is not what science is about. I feel that the public often have to put their trust in what scientists say and I feel that it is extremely important that this trust is not violated: we must provide the truth, and only but the truth, even if our findings are inconclusive or perhaps against expectations. I feel it is information derived from politicians that may prove spurious. These players may be caught up in agendas that could lead to biased information. To exemplify, should the Anthropocene be confirmed as a new epoch, it may have vast impacts on political frameworks that relate to climate change policies. The same goes for energy players, car manufacturers and other companies that perhaps contribute to global CO2 emissions. On the other hand, perhaps I am bias because I fall into the ‘climate scientist’ category. But, then again, it may shock you to read that, actually, I sit on the fence on the Anthropocene debate.

Primarily this is because I have read little about this epoch. Secondly, I feel that, looking at the long term geological timescales, the scientific community is perhaps going a bit ‘label’ mad. As was mentioned in the Holocene Climate Change (2013) conference (see Holocene Climate Change Conference 2013 tab at the top), climate scientists have been criticised for calling marginal deviations of the normal climate trend as ‘events’ when perhaps they are not in the same sense as the climatic oscillations seen in the Pleistocene, for example (the period of 2.6million-11.7k years before present). In a way, I feel that the length of evidence evaluated for the proposed epoch is inadequate and fails to be representative of changing climate, in the same way as previous epochs have been defined. Furthermore, leading scientists have yet to convince myself of such a new epoch. For example, top scientist Prof. Tony Brown, has failed on two occasions to clarify exactly how the Anthropocene boundary is determined in his workings. This is noted in previous blog entries and should not be brought up again.

However, there is no denying the exponential increases in CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. This is seen in almost all isotopic studies undertaken within the climatic community. While I was at the CIC in Copenhagen, I was having a look around the isotope lab with a PhD student. He showed me some of his late-Holocene work, and there was a shocking increase of CO2 after the Industrial Revolution. Sporadic data findings such as this makes you realise the impacts that the human population has on the landscape. CO2 rises of this pattern are just not seen in other epochs and it is important to respect these anomalous findings; albeit the popular phrase: ‘correlation does not mean causation’ coming to mind, it is extremely hard not to relate the two issues. Furthermore, climate scientists are able to use a relatively new dating methodology: Cesium137. Since 1952, this element has been found within sediments as a result of nuclear testing; this is a clear sign of the influences that humans have on the landscape. It is global impacts like this that provide clear evidence which can be used to support the notion of the Anthropocene.

As Slaughter (2012) states:

Sceptics have only to contemplate examples like the now-vanished Aral Sea,

the destruction of numerous ocean fisheries, the long-term decline of coral reefs, the scarcity of clean fresh water, the chronic

decline of terrestrial environments and the reality of the ‘sixth extinction’ to recognise, at some level, that something is terribly

wrong.

Statements like this are shocking because they are true. The Aral Sea has paled into nothingness. Ocean acidification is witnessed around the World, as is water scarcity. And, I must now take the time to herald the work of my favourite photographer: James Balog. Just youtube search him and you will be catapulted into a new, scary world; this world is often ignored by the global community as it is out of our reach and fails to personally affect us. But, glacial melt perhaps affect us more than any other environmental change due to its influence on the oceanic circulation (THC). When you consider these implications, which are smaller than the blink of an eye on geological time scales, the concept of the Anthropocene does not seem as far-fetched. Taking a moment to see these changes from space may help to gain a different perspective:

Image

 

Image

Image

 

Time lapse of environmental changes from space (definitely worth a watch):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74lmRz9cORQ

The recent proposal to scrap climate change from the UK education system is ludicrous, and personally I feel that it is part of a wider political agenda. When you view images of changes such as those shown in this blog entry, it is easy to see that we are at a critical point in a world of changing state. The world is regarded by some to be reaching a tipping point: a point where climatic changes may exceed a critical threshold and be unable to return back to the previous state. When you take all of this into account, the Anthropocene appears to be a more appealing proposal.

Ruddiman would, however, argue that humans have influenced climate over a much longer time period. He argues (particularly well in his book: Plows, Plagues and Petroleum) that since the cultivation of rice paddy fields in Asia ~8,000 years ago, the atmospheric regime of the climate has been altered. Therefore, the notion of the Anthropocene should, in theory, be placed further back in time. This opens a whole can of worms with regards to the present understanding of the Holocene, and in particular, Holocene climate variability. Moreover, previous epochs have been defined by changes in the fossil record. There is presently no rock record of the Anthropocene and therefore its classification cannot be born in the same manner as previous classifications. The notion is particularly complicated as anthropogenically induced impacts on climate are expected to increase over time. Furthermore, extrapolating the signal of anthropogenic and natural climate change is difficult and it is stated in many scientific articles that the different forcing signals are hard to differentiate.

So, after all of this, where do I stand? Well, after watching many Youtube videos of changing landscapes, and what is regarded as anthropogenic changes to the environment, I am a dribbling mess, huddled in the corner wanting to throw myself of a cliff. In some regards, I am disgraced by humanity for meddling with mother-nature to such an extent that our precious world is unrecognisable from its natural state. Reading, physically seeing scientific results and attending conferences, I feel it is undeniable that our climate is changing. However, the logical, scientific part of my mind begs me to ask more questions about the forcing signals of climate change. Modelling will pave the way to better understand these different signals; these are, and will, help to recognise the extent to which anthropogenic forcing is affecting our globe. I feel that until this signal is extrapolated, we cannot categorise these present changes as a new epoch as some of the changes may be natural. So, I feel that climate is changing, but as to whether we can regard it as a new epoch is questionable.

 

Relative websites:

http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/anthropocene_welcome.asp – Planet Under Pressure (2012): ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene.’

http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1171/html/cores.htm – Sediment cores and Cesium137

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_anthropocene_debate__marking_humanitys_impact/2274/ – a good account of the Anthropocene

Slaughter, R.A., (2012) – ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ Futures, 44, 119-126 http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0016328711002436/1-s2.0-S0016328711002436-main.pdf?_tid=3c145c06-caf8-11e2-a787-00000aacb362&acdnat=1370118008_7e32c4bebf9b9caa131517fbfc10a37c

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My experience at the CIC in Copenhagen

This is a short video summarising my weeks work experience at the CIC in Copenhagen. I had an absolutely amazing time and learnt so, so much. I completed one of my childhood dreams: to work with ice cores as a climate archive. I apologise that my video editing skills are not the finest, but I hope you enjoy the insight into the great work that happens at the CIC. There are some really brilliant people there!

I can’t believe that my undergraduate life is almost over!

I have two months left of my undergraduate life. It’s gone so quick… actually, that is an understatement. It’s disappeared in the blink of an eye. So much has happened in that time – both personally and academically. I don’t feel that this is the place to disclose my personal mishaps, challenges, encounters and successes, but it is the place to address academic changes.

Let’s start with choosing universities. I was at college, deciding which subject to take further. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to university. My initial instinct was to study Psychology because I wasn’t smart enough to take up climatology (you know the film ‘The Day After Tomorrow’? Well, I want to be that guy that says ‘the climate is changing…’). But, I realised that you need to choose a subject that you love, that you are passionate about, and that you enjoy. It can’t just be what you’re good at. Because, university is a different ball game to school. It’s self motivated study.. So, geography was my favourite A-level course (when we weren’t talking about regeneration and urban developments and all the other human geography stuff). And therefore, I decided to apply for that. So, I was left staring at the wall of university prospectuses. I had a serious long term boyfriend at the time and decided that I wanted to be a maximum of 2 hours away from home so I could head back to see him and my family, and my doctor (being a type 1 diabetic is a pain!). So, I knew the key ones I wanted to apply to: Portsmouth, Brighton, Bournemouth, Winchester and… So, I was looking for the last one. It was basically a filler. I assumed I would end up at Brighton or something, and I was in a rush. So, my name begins with R. So, I pulled out the R selection. Then I saw Royal Holloway. It looked beautiful and had Royal in it. So, I jotted it down and applied, not even really thinking about it.

The time came to check out the universities. First was Brighton. Now, I actually really liked the staff at this university, and I decided that if I chose this university, I wouldn’t do geography, but would take Environmental Hazards. However, the halls of residence put me off and 2 hours seemed quite far for me. So, I visited Portsmouth. It was far too busy for me, and it seemed very geared towards partying (something which I wasn’t keen on at the time). I visited Winchester, but decided the course wasn’t for me (primary ed with geography specialism). And, I never went to Bournemouth because I had a friend there that I could visit. I started crying at Portsmouth, because I was hoping it would be ‘the one.’ I have big confidence issues and the ABB entry requirements from Holloway made me not want to put it as a 1st or reserve. The lower requirements at Portsmouth meant that (in my head at least) this was the university I was going to, and I had hated it. So, me and mum made a visit to Royal Holloway. We drove in and I said ‘this is it, this is the one.’ I didn’t even look at the geography dept to know that this university was the one for me. I suppose I was looking for a campus university all along and just didn’t know it.

After getting an offer at Royal Holloway, I went to a departmental open day. We had a lecture by Dr Ian Candy and I had a meeting with Dr Varyl Thorndycraft. This overran by about 30 minutes and then I had a personal tour of the dept as everyone else had gone home! I got talking with Pierre Schreve. He really sold it to me: talking about the megafauna that roamed the British Isles during the last glacial maximum (LGM). So, I put RHUL as my firm choice on UCAS. I put Winchester as my second because I had decided if I didn’t get into Royal Holloway, I didn’t want to go to university at all and would just go for the career move. When I got my A-level results (English Language A*, Psychology A, Geography B) I was so happy that I got my firm choice. It was unbelievable. But, because Geography was my lowest grade, I had doubts and wondered whether I should be doing a linguistics or speech therapy course at university instead. This was a natural worry, but I remembered what I said earlier: do what you enjoy, not what you’re good at. So, off I went to university!

Founders

Founders

In first year, my essays were…well, at the time they were masterpieces. First class, diagram ridden masterpieces… with 4 – 6 references. I look back on them and just think: ‘oh wow.’ But I loved first year. Living in Founders, partying, working, meeting people, studying, Spain fieldtrip…The Spain fieldtrip was a particular highlight. I obviously had great friends from Founders, but I hadn’t really gotten friendly with people on my course (bar the drinks reception in freshers where I probably made use of one too many free glasses of wine!). But, for me, first year was about making the transition from learning a multitude of subjects (in my case English Language, Psychology and Geography A-levels) and homing in on one specific topic: geography… although, to what extent geography can be called specific is debatable due to it’s synoptic and interlinking subjects. In first year though, John Lowe’s lecture on the atmosphere and oceans sold it to me. It confirmed my belief: this is what I wanted to do. I was mesmerised and loved the reading as well as the lectures. I have never regretted choosing RHUL as my university.

Spain fieldtrip

Spain fieldtrip

Spain fieldtrip

Spain fieldtrip

In my second year I got glandular fever. University was a real struggle. My diabetic control was awful and I was sleeping 16 hours a day and working at the shop 12 hours a week. It took it’s toll and the grades I received were, while good, not as good as I wanted or was obtaining in first year. I really enjoyed second year, but made a mistake of choosing a human geography course because I did better in the human geography exams in first year. I suppose second year went without any major hitches though and the Ireland fieldtrip was awesome. I had an amazing time and it was so good to get stuck into physical geography for an entire week (and drink Guinness on St Patrick’s Day!). The peat bog day was definitely my favourite, whereby we cored a peat bog/fell into pools of water covered by sphagnum moss.

Liffey Head Bog

Liffey Head Bog

Ireland group

Ireland group

Stratigraphy

Third and final year. It’s been challenging to say the least. It started straight after exams in second year, really. I was so excited to start the lab work for my dissertation. I did all my lab work over summer (calcimetry, TOC, mag sus, Troels Smith, d18O and d13C isotopes and thin section micromorphology) on my sediment core from Llangorse, Southern Wales. I loved every second of the dissertation – even when it was hard and I had a rough day working on it. I went to Copenhagen for a week to work at the Niels Bohr Institute (Centre for Ice and Climate) and study ice cores. I had the most amazing time and carried out one of my childhood dreams: to touch an ice core! But, I came back, and while most people had had a week of catching up on sleep, I had 5 written deadlines in 5 weeks and 2 presentations and hadn’t had a break. That was particularly challenging and I can’t deny that I really struggled. There were a lot of tears and breakdowns and that has by far been the hardest part of university, to the point where I could have dropped out easily. But, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? So, now I am just left revising for exams/ writing long blog entrties. This is going to be hard. 6x 2 hour long exams. So, here comes my exams rant:

I hate exams. Firstly, I don’t feel that they are representative of what a person actually knows about a subject. I like to read everything and I get sidetracked by papers that are interesting (and perhaps I won’t be tested in an exam on this). I am just generally rubbish at them and I get ridiculously stressed out by them because my fate lies in 2 hours of frantically scribbling the verbal vomit that I have at the time. I understand that other people’s strengths lie in exams as opposed to coursework… but exams are less applicable in the real world than coursework, in my opinion. I want to become a researcher/lecturer. This will involve writing papers and therefore coursework is the most similar form of testing. Exams will (hopefully) no longer be a part of my life after May, but I can’t help feeling angry that 50% of my third year lies in 12 hours worth of questions. If someone had a spoken conversation to me about the topics, I would nail it, i’m sure, but writing it down? I just get stressed and tied down to stuff that doesn’t matter because the stress stops me from thinking clearly. Also, for a diabetic to sit an exam is a nightmare. An absolute nightmare. I have to have my bloods at a certain level before going in because using my brain, and experiencing stress will make my bloods crash, and it takes me around 1 hour to fully recover from a hypoglyceamic attack. So, my bloods are high in an exam, which causes poor thinking skills, blurred vision, tiredness, thirst and the need to pee. Okay, so that doesn’t sound that bad, but I am instantly at a disadvantage when I start the exam needing to pee, gagging for a pint of water and unable to stop yawning. So. Yeah, it’s a shame that I won’t be finishing my degree on the highest of highs because I will be completely stressing about these exams, but on the plus side… I finish three days before my 21st birthday, and that is definitely something to be excited about.

So, all in all, pre-finals undergraduate life has been awesome to me. I have had a fantastic time, the lecturers have been brilliant, and it’s only really my health that has held me back. I’ve been inspired, supported, encouraged and believed in at Royal Holloway and I look forward to starting the Quaternary Science MSc there in September. And all of this is because I picked a university that started with the same letter as my name… life is a funny thing.