The official timeline of Earth's history could soon include the age of nuclear weapons, human-caused climate change and the proliferation of plastics, garbage and concrete across the planet.
In short, the present.
Ten thousand years after our species began forming primitive agrarian societies, a panel of scientists on Saturday took a big step toward declaring a new interval of geologic time: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.
Our current geologic epoch, the Holocene, began 11,700 years ago with the end of the last big ice age. The panel's roughly three dozen scholars appear close to recommending that, actually, we have spent the past few decades in a brand-new time unit, one characterized by human-induced, planetary-scale changes that are unfinished but very much underway.
"If you were around in 1920, your attitude would have been, 'Nature's too big for humans to influence,'" said Colin N. Waters, a geologist and chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, the panel that has been deliberating on the issue since 2009. The past century has upended that thinking, Waters said. "It's been a shock event, a bit like an asteroid hitting the planet."
The working group's members on Saturday completed the first in a series of internal votes on details including when exactly they believe the Anthropocene began. Once these votes are finished, which could be by spring, the panel will submit its final proposal to three other committees of geologists whose votes will either make the Anthropocene official or reject it.
Sixty percent of each committee will need to approve the group's proposal for it to advance to the next. If it fails in any of them, the Anthropocene might not have another chance to be ratified for years.
If it makes it all the way, though, geology's amended timeline would officially recognize that humankind's effects on the planet had been so consequential as to bring the previous chapter of Earth's history to a close. It would acknowledge that these effects will be discernible in the rocks for millenniums.
"I teach the history of science — you know, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo," said Francine McCarthy, an earth scientist at Brock University in Canada and member of the working group. "We're actually doing it," she said. "We're living the history of science."