Has the anthropocene epoch started, beginning a new age on Earth, marked primarily by the actions of human beings on the environment? A study group, examining the question since 2009, will soon make their recommendation on that very question.
The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) will meet in Berlin, Germany on October 23 and 24. This will be the first time the members have met together as a single body. The group, composed of a wide variety of specialists in a multitude of fields, will pass their decision onto the International Geological Congress, which has the power to determine if a new epoch should officially be named.
Humans began to establish dominance over portions of the Earth around the time the last Ice Age ended. However, the effect of civilization over the planet has become far more pronounced in the last two centuries.
"What we see is the urban phenomenon and the boom of China has a direct marking in the forms of the strata. You can no longer distinguish what is man-made from what is natural," John Palmesino, a photographer and architect who helped record the impact of humans on the environment for the group, said.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now greater than they have been since the dawn of the human race 2.6 million years ago, and oceans are higher than at any point in the last 6,000 years. Some biologists believe the planet may now be entering a new great extinction, as plant and animal species continue to disappear.
"It is clear that, though we have differences about when it starts, it seems as a group that we were quite happy to say we are in the Anthropocene," Colin Waters, a geologist with the British Geological Society and secretary for the working group, told the press. The official recommendation will not be delivered to the congress until August 2016.
Even if the working group is largely in agreement that such an additional epoch should be declared, investigators are still uncertain when an anthropocene epoch would begin. The longest division of geological time are known as periods. Shorter than these are epochs, followed by ages.
The Holocene Epoch, in which our present age is currently listed, started 11,400 years in the past. Such divisions of time are determined through the study of layers of rock and sediment. Many of the most dramatic changes are marked by the appearance - or disappearance - of large numbers of species.
The effect of human civilization on the Earth is felt and measured worldwide. Global climate change, brought about in part from the release of greenhouse gases from human activities, is also affecting the environment worldwide.