The Duration of the Anthropocene Epoch: A Synthesis

49 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2024

See all articles by Colin Peter Summerhayes

Colin Peter Summerhayes

University of Cambridge

Jan Zalasiewicz

University of Leicester

Martin Head

Brock University

Jaia Syvitski

University of Colorado Boulder

Anthony Barnosky

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Alejandro Cearreta

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Barbara Fiałkiewicz-Koziel

Adam Mickiewicz University

Jacques Grinevald

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Reinhold Leinfelder

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Francine McCarthy

Brock University

J.R. McNeill

Georgetown University

Yoshiki Saito

Shimane University

Michael Wagreich

Medical University of Vienna

Colin Waters

University of Leicester

Mark Williams

University of Leicester

Jens Zinke

University of Leicester

Abstract

We synthesize research from complementary scientific fields to address the likely extent and duration of the proposed Anthropocene epoch. Ongoing intensification of human-forced climate change began in the mid-20th century, with steepening increases in greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, global temperature and sea level, along with the restructuring of Earth’s biota. The resulting distinction between relatively stable Holocene conditions and those of the proposed Anthropocene epoch is substantial, irreversible, and likely to persist indefinitely. The still-rising trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions from the energy requirements of a growing global population is leading to yet greater and more permanent divergence of the Anthropocene from the Holocene Earth System. We focus here on the effects of the ensuing climate transformation and its impact on the likely duration of this novel state of the Earth System. Given the magnitude and rapid rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), its long lifetime in the atmosphere, and the present disequilibrium in Earth’s energy budget (expressed as the Earth’s Energy Imbalance, or EEI), both temperatures and sea level must continue to rise – even if carbon emissions were lowered to net zero (where CO2 emissions = CO2 removals) – until the energy budget balance is eventually restored. Even if net zero were achieved immediately, elevated global temperatures would persist for at least several tens of millennia. The expected levels of warmth have not been seen since the early Late Pliocene, and interglacial conditions are likely to persist for at least 50,000 years from now under already-accumulated CO2 emissions and Earth’s low eccentricity orbit. Continued increases in greenhouse gas emissions are likely to extend that persistence to around 500,000 years and will likely suppress the pronounced expression of Milankovitch cyclicity typical of the Pleistocene Epoch. This major perturbation alone is sufficient to justify the Anthropocene as an epoch terminating the Holocene Epoch; the wider effects of climate change in driving further, mostly irreversible, restructuring of the biosphere amplifies this distinction.

Keywords: Anthropocene epoch, climate change, global warming, Sea-level rise, Earth System, Earth's Energy Imbalance, Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Suggested Citation

Summerhayes, Colin Peter and Zalasiewicz, Jan and Head, Martin and Syvitski, Jaia and Barnosky, Anthony and Cearreta, Alejandro and Fiałkiewicz-Koziel, Barbara and Grinevald, Jacques and Leinfelder, Reinhold and McCarthy, Francine and McNeill, J.R. and Saito, Yoshiki and Wagreich, Michael and Waters, Colin and Williams, Mark and Zinke, Jens, The Duration of the Anthropocene Epoch: A Synthesis. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4788354 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4788354

Colin Peter Summerhayes (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge ( email )

Trinity Ln
Cambridge, CB2 1TN
United Kingdom

Jan Zalasiewicz

University of Leicester ( email )

University Road
Leicester, LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

Martin Head

Brock University ( email )

500 Glenridge Avenue
St. Catherines, L2S 3A1
Canada

Jaia Syvitski

University of Colorado Boulder ( email )

256 UCB
Boulder, CO 80300-0256
United States

Anthony Barnosky

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

Alejandro Cearreta

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

Barbara Fiałkiewicz-Koziel

Adam Mickiewicz University ( email )

Wieniawskiego 1
Poznan, 61-712
Poland

Jacques Grinevald

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

Reinhold Leinfelder

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

Francine McCarthy

Brock University ( email )

500 Glenridge Avenue
St. Catherines, L2S 3A1
Canada

J.R. McNeill

Georgetown University ( email )

Washington, DC 20057
United States

Yoshiki Saito

Shimane University ( email )

Nishikawatsu-Cho 1060
Matsue-SHi, 690-0868
Japan

Michael Wagreich

Medical University of Vienna ( email )

Colin Waters

University of Leicester ( email )

University Road
Leicester, LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

Mark Williams

University of Leicester ( email )

University Road
Leicester, LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

Jens Zinke

University of Leicester ( email )

University Road
Leicester, LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

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