‘Stone Aged Animals with Space Age Technology’

Gator Day presentation raises questions about newest geological time period


Brittany Adams

Harper Zimmer, ‘18, and Anastasia Georgiades, ‘16, read information on the hypothetical time period, the Anthropocene, in the campus center lobby on April 5, 2016.

Every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. a group of six students gather in the first floor of Steffee Hall to explore, discuss and debate the existence of one of the most controversial, contentious topics in earth sciences: the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene, depending on who you ask, is the hypothetical time period marked by the sum total of human activity on planet earth. When the period begins and whether the criteria of human impact may be enough to distinguish a new geologic age are the subjects of intense debates in the scientific community.

According to Maggie Limbeck, ’16, a geology major and one of the group’s participants, the group operates as a one-credit class, officially termed a group study by Allegheny’s academic standards.

“We have not actually come up with a solid definition that we like yet because it is so hard to define and so hard to find a start date for,” said Limbeck

The assignment of a specific start date could carry political ramifications as well as scientific, according to Limbeck. If the Anthropocene were said to begin during colonial times, for example, then western, colonial powers could be potentially seen as collectively responsible for the globalization and industrialization that led to the world’s changing climate. Defining the Anthropocene, in other words, means defining the extent of human activity that nations, or perhaps the human race, must be held accountable for reversing.

“[The course] is like a crash course in economics, humanitarianism, how we are learning about this science and how it is affected by politics,” said Limbeck.

On the other hand, if the date preceded modern national boundaries, the issue of climate change would be viewed with a more collective responsibility. So what is the range that scientists have narrowed a possible start date down to?

On Tuesday, April 5, as part of Allegheny College’s Gator Day activities, the group displayed the results of their delvings in a poster presentation in the campus center lobby. The presentation attempted to tackle the question of the existence and/or start date of the Anthropocene.

“We have the beginning of our genus, when humans evolved 2.8 million years ago, and 2000 [CE], which is when we first started seeing the Anthropocene in scientific literature,” said Shannon Doherty, ’18, a geology major and course participant.

The latter date suggests that the Anthropocene is a time period that only begins once humanity is aware that is has begun. In other words, it is not defined by human activity per se, but rather, by human recognition that activity has a meaningful impact.

“And that’s when it becomes more of a humanitarian issue,” said Limbeck. “Our technology so outpaces us, that we can use it, for example, to press a ‘play’ button, but we do not always understand all of the ramifications of using this technology further down the road.”

This includes, as one poster presented, the total carbon footprint of one Google search. The footprint of one search by itself is almost negligible, but when accumulated across the entire population, the numbers start to add up to a startling amount of energy.

Of the various papers that the group read, one presented various possible metrics by which scientists might measure human impact on the world. These included mundane measurements such as carbon dioxide or methane output, but also included some less-obvious markers, such as total McDonald’s locations around the world.

The title of the presentation, “Stone Aged Animals with Space Age Technology,” was pulled from one of the articles that the group read. Hadia Thompson, ’18, a geology major, had the idea of using the phrase.

“As a geology major, [the course] caught my eye,” said Thompson. “We focus a lot on the geologic time scale, on things like 100, 200 or 300 million years ago, as opposed to 2 million. I thought it would be interesting to have a class that focused specifically on that.”

Visitors to the display were greeted with a sign that asked: What is the Anthropocene?

The display continued in a wide ring of posters and visuals, including a large timeline listing all of the proposed start dates for the Anthropocene, including the aforementioned 28 million-year mark, as well as 200,000 years ago (the appearance of Homo sapiens), 13,000 years ago (the invention of agriculture) and 1610 CE (the beginning of colonialism and globalization).

Colin McIntosh, ’18, an environmental science major with a minor in global health studies, chose to participate in the course due to the relevance of the course’s content to his own studies. His presence brought a more present-day-centric perspective to the group, which, besides him, consists entirely of geology students.

“I thought that [the Anthropocene] should start with the invention of agriculture, because that event is what set us apart from every species that came before us,” said McIntosh.

McIntosh argued that, while agriculture itself brought about changes to the planet (genetic modification by domestication of plant and animal species, as well as localized ecological disruptions), it also established a foundation for further advances that affected more planetary change.

“Even today, agriculture is one of the biggest polluters and one of the biggest driving factors of climate change,” said McIntosh.

Beside the time line stood a table with various assorted shells, corals and fossils from the geology department.

“This is our ‘touching’ part of the exhibit,” said Limbeck. “We wanted a section where people could see and feel the effects of ocean acidification and climate change on calcareous organisms.”

Calcareous refers to anything that grows a shell made of calcium carbonate. This material is particularly sensitive to changes in ocean acidity and temperature.

On one end of the circle stood a projection screen of an Earth Clock, a list of several of the startling metrics by which net human impact on the globe might be measured. Metrics included world human population (7.28 billion), species extinct (35), and tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (35,800,000, increasing at about 1,000 tons per second).

One particularly apocalyptic metric was the oil depletion timer, which did not list any volume of consumption, but simply presented a timer: 12,607 days, 11 hours, 27 minutes and 33 seconds. Or, roughly 34 years.

The Earth Clock may be found and marveled at online at www.poodwaddle.com/earthclock.swf.