Holocene man (and woman and children) learnt to survive melting glaciers, a warming earth, rising seas, and the onset of agriculture, mining, organized religion, and industry. Now the Holocene is ended and we pass into a new geological age. What an extraordinary thought that we have lived through the end of an epoch to enter another.
It is not yet entirely clear what the new epoch is called–most likely it will be the Anthropocene. Here is a bit on where the name comes from:
In a stirring 2000 paper, Crutzen pointed to the many ways that today’s Earth is no longer “natural” thanks to the effects of human civilization. Global warming is only the latest and best-known example. Truly, he says, humans have become a geologic agent comparable to erosion and eruptions, and accordingly “it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch.” He repeated his proposal to a much larger audience in a January 2002 Nature article.
This is a well-worded and precise proposal. The geologic time scale extends from the Earth’s formation, in the Hadean Eon, to the current Holocene Epoch, which began with the latest interglacial period about 12,000 years ago. So Crutzen wants the Holocene to end and the Anthropocene to begin, a new time period of the same rank as the Holocene. We would still be in the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era in the Phanerozoic Eon.
Do not dismiss this as another global warming gambit. For example, see the story at this link about plastic, in the ocean, in our bodies, and in the world forever. This article goes even further; it tells of the end of the Anthropocene. I quote:
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an expert on marine debris: “If you could fast-forward ten thousand years and do an archaeological dig….you’d find a little line of plastic. What happened to those people? Well. they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed themselves.”
I am not as pessimistic as he is. I suspect that if homo sapiens sapiens could survive the 75,000 or so years of nature-induced change we have, then it is not unreasonable to be hopeful we can survive another 75,000 of change of anthropomorphic-induced change. It may not be a pretty sight. But then much of what went on surviving ice-ages etc., was not pretty, so no need for sloppy sentiment there.
Because this is a mining-related blog, let me focus for a short time on what we will see at mines during (or maybe just at the end of) the Anthropocene. First lots of tailings impoundments moving or being moved to restore nature’s geomorphic preference. Anthropocene man will not stay around to stop the erosion and washouts and flushouts that will clear the valleys and plains of inappropriately located and inexpertly built impoundments that will be swept north by vast floods to far-flung shores and newly warmed ocean deltas. (Of course the tailings could also go south, east, or west.)
Now-steep open pits will ravel back to flatten out and become pans and puddles; dry or overflowing in response to the evaporation or rain that predominates. Rock slopes will find every last weak-joint plane and we will see slopes wrought by fantasy and computer code and risk assessment return to an “equilibrium” with nature–however fierce and changed a nature that may be.
Rock dumps will be washed clean; or at least reduced to decomposed mud, itself to be swept away in just another storm or flood and geochemical equilibrium will return to the landscape.
It is enough to make you proud to be working with soil and rock that will soon enough become one again with nature. At least as compared to the industrialist putting carbon into the air never to truly come out. Or a shopper putting plastic into the street and ocean to pollute forever and kill and strangle and render impotent generations until they cease to exist.
So next time an environmentalist tackles you as a miner on what you are doing to destroy the environment, ask her what she is doing with her plastic shopping bags. Bet she does not even realize she is the bigger, longer-term polluter.