Geology for Global Development

Geoethics

Anthropocene: Are we in the recent age of man?

International Chronostratigraphic Chart

Regular GfGD Blog contributor Heather Britton pen’s this weeks post, where she discusses the heated topic of whether we are, or not, living in the Anthropocene. [Editor’s note: This post reflects Heather’s personal opinion. This opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

Naming a geological epoch the Anthropocene, literally meaning ‘the recent age of man’, is an idea that has been seriously discussed in many scientific circles and has become a scientific buzzword in recent years. Environmentalists, generally, are great proponents for the idea, stating that it summarises the huge changes that human presence has had on the planet and draws attention to the need for us to change our ways and prevent the damage from extending into the future. Geologists are typically less enthused by the idea. Naming an interval of geological time involves formally recognising that the Earth has been permanently changed at the onset of this era, and although in many ways humans have permanently changed the planet, making this a formal geological epoch requires the identification of a single point in the rock record when this took place. I wish to explain why I believe the Anthropocene, although suggested for admirable reasons, should not become formally recognised.

The term was first popularised almost 20 years ago in the year 2000 (by environmental scientist Paul Crutzen) and in 2016 the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) voted to formally designate the epoch Anthropocene and present the recommendation to the international geological congress. The International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences have not approved this subdivision of geological time, but it may be that a decision is on the horizon [Ed: In July 2018 the International Union of Geological Sciences ratified a decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy which announced Earth was living in the Meghalayan Age].

Finding the signal that marks this period exactly is difficult, but not for a lack of options. The prime candidate is the appearance of radioactive nuclides from nuclear bomb tests, which have registered a signal worldwide. Plastic pollution, high level of nitrogen and phosphate in soils from fertilisers and a massive increase in the number of fossilised chicken bones are other strong contenders which appear to define the rise of the human population and civilisation. There is certainly strong evidence to suggest humanity’s effect on the planet is permanent, but are we really in a position to state that the planet has undergone a permanent change when humanity itself is still a blip in geological time? To put it another way, if something were to wipe out the human race tomorrow, there certainly would be a distinctive signal of our presence in the rock record, but due to the tiny fraction of Earth history that we occupy, how can we guarantee that it will endure for long enough to be significant in geological terms?

Plastic in the rock record could used as a marker for the base of the Anthropocene. Credit: Guilhem Amin Douillet (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

There are many geologists who would claim that the creation of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Each Eon, Era and Epoch has been painstakingly identified using signals within the strata that must conform to a set of very strict rules. This ensures that rocks all over the world can be correlated to the same record of geological time, allowing communication and understanding between scientists from different countries where otherwise the use of local nomenclature would cause endless mistakes and confusion. The most common way of marking the base of a stratigraphic unit is the appearance or disappearance of a particular fossil.

This method clearly has its limitations – fossil organisms will have only lived in certain habitats, and it is assumed that the time taken for a new fossil organism to spread from where it evolved to locations across the globe is negligible in comparison to geological time, something we can’t be certain is true for all species. Dating is simpler when volcanic rocks are present, as radioactive dating is able to step in and provide, for the most part, accurate rock ages, but such methods cannot be used with any great certainty in the sedimentary world. As discussed above, fossil evidence for the beginning of the Anthropocene is present, but it seems more likely that a different kind of signal is used to mark this new epoch. This would not be the first time, as was demonstrated when the Holocene was formally designated in 2008.

In conclusion, making the Anthropocene a formal geological epoch would send out a message which may fast track the public and global governments to take notice of the impact we are having on the planet and, as a result, take action. I question, however, whether this is a sound enough reason to add to the international stratigraphic column. The Holocene, the time period we are currently considered to be occupying, began approximately 12,000 years ago as Earth slipped out of ice ages into what is currently an extended interglacial period showing no sign of slipping back into its glacial state. The time since the start of the Holocene is already only a geological blink of an eye and cutting it short now to make way for the Anthropocene seems both unnecessary and indicative of a lack of appreciation of the enormity of geological time. The now is not always an appropriate time to mark a significant event, as it is only afterward that its significance can really be properly understood. Regardless of this, it does not excuse how over the miniscule time period that we have spent inhabiting this planet we have had such a detrimental effect on what is a shared home and not ours to ruin. This certainly needs to be put to rights, but I am not certain that announcing the Anthropocene is the best way of doing so.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **

 

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

The urgency around many sustainability issues leads some billionaire investors to throw caution in the wind, frustrated with the pace of academic research. Robert Emberson sympathises with private projects like the Ocean Cleanup, even when things go wrong. ‘How’, he asks, ‘might we build a constructive bridge between ambitious entrepreneurs and scientific sceptics? ‘

Reading and writing about sustainable development in 2019 can be tough going, with a seemingly unending series of headlines suggesting that we as a society are lagging behind in the race to achieve our goals and that the deleterious effects of climate change are looming closer and closer, if not already upon us.

So when good news of any kind comes along, it can often be something to cling to – and perhaps even more devastating if that news is not what it seems. This up and down emotional trajectory describes my response to the clean-up operation launched last year to remove the plastic waste from the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, which ran into difficulties early this year.

The story is not yet over, though, and there are lessons to be learned for scientists working on issues related to sustainability more generally – so perhaps a positive outcome is still to come.

For those unaware, plastic pollution, both small and large, often ends up in the ocean, where gyres – or ocean currents – preferentially carry the waste products to certain areas, where it accumulates. These patches are hard to delineate, since unlike the images of islands of plastic bottles and grocery bags sometimes portrayed in the media, the plastic concentration is relatively low (4 particles per cubic metre), but the patch – which may be as large as 15,000,000 square kilometres – likely represents the largest waste accumulation in the ocean.

The open ocean, while home to diverse ecosystems and vitally important to many food networks, is a challenging thing to govern. Since it is not owned by any given country, the responsibility to clean up waste accumulating within the seas is nigh on impossible to assign. It’s a classic problem of ‘the commons’ – shared resources, like the ocean or the atmosphere, that many users need but none own, can be overexploited and depleted. Resolving those issues can be challenging at best.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start

So, in 2012, enter the Ocean Cleanup Project. At a TED talk, the 18-year-old inventor Boyan Slat laid out a plan to use floating booms to gradually gather up the waste in an efficient manner. Investors were intrigued, and the project took off quickly; billionaires funding it allowed for it to be deployed in mid-2018, rapid progress by any standard. The clean-up attempt had begun in earnest.

Quickly, though, problems arose; the system of floating booms couldn’t withstand the storms in the open ocean, and by January 2019 the first clean-up system had been towed to Hawaii for repairs after teething problems.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, research oceanographers unaffiliated with the project, analysed the project and found major issues. While there was communication between the scientists and the engineers involved with the project, and some of the issues raised were addressed, the two oceanographers still maintained that while the aim was laudable, the design was not as accomplished. Despite this, the project went ahead, and the concerns of the scientists proved to be well founded.

Clearly, this is a well-intentioned project. But perhaps just as clear is that a communications gulf existed between the scientists and the project developers. And therein lies the key question: how can scientists involved in sustainability issues best communicate their thoughts to private sector projects aiming to solve those issues? It certainly seems unlikely that the Ocean Cleanup will be the last case where such communication matters.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that in some cases private investors and entrepreneurs have stepped in with big ideas to solve problems of the commons. It’s clear that in many cases billionaires have lofty ambitions beyond the business that made them rich – both Jeff Bezos at Amazon at Tesla’s Elon Musk have moved into space exploration, and for individuals with such a mindset the idea of ‘saving the world’ might well appeal. They may also consider themselves less limited by regulation and national borders than scientists and government.

In fact, there’s more than just regulation and borders that hold back some ideas. The precautionary principle, both in unwritten and legal contexts, prevents some action where it is unclear if that action could result in harm to the public. This is often applied to geoengineering ideas, since the long-term implications may not be well known. A private project to dump iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage plankton growth and thus a draw-down of Carbon Dioxide in 2012 was cited as falling foul of these principles, having not established the long-term risk of seeding the ocean in this way.

The slower pace of academic research, …, makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late

At the same time, however, there is an increasing sense of urgency around many sustainability questions. The slower pace of academic research, the painstaking process of ensuring reproducibility in findings, and the need to establish long term effects of potential solutions to climate or sustainability issues makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late.

I can sympathise with that view. It’s well-meaning, and solving a problem is better than sitting on the sidelines, or worse profiting from it. Moreover, hindsight is 20:20, so if a solution only becomes problematic after it is deployed, then those behind it can always argue that they did what they could in advance. That must be balanced though with an abundance of caution, and perhaps this is where scientists can help.

I would argue that we should be realistic – solutions will come from all sectors of society, and private individuals and entrepreneurs may well be the ones leading the charge. While it shouldn’t be incumbent upon research scientists alone to ensure their voices are heard by private projects, we shouldn’t shy away; building bridges, especially in the form of communication channels, would be of great benefit. Goldstein and Martini did a great service to science by reaching out and making their voices heard, even if they might have been perceived as naysayers.

We might not be able to change the minds of those leading private initiatives, but we can at least provide them with the most information possible to make their decisions.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website robertemberson.com

Heather Britton: Can Animals be Used to Predict Earthquakes?

One of the most common questions faced by the disaster risk reduction community relates to earthquake prediction (see this Geological Society briefing on prediction vs. forecasting). The disaster risk reduction community, however, would perhaps argue that improved buildings, reduction in poverty, and improved governance are a greater priority than predicting earthquakes. Even so, there are still many members of the international community focused on trying to identify ways to predict earthquakes, including through the study of animal behaviours.

Our understanding of where earthquakes are most likely to occur is improving, but our ability to predict when an earthquake will strike is lacking, often limited to the decadal scale at best. We also lack information on what the magnitude or size of an earthquake would be at that given point in time. If such a feat were possible, and an orderly evacuation could take place, lives could be saved. Many seismologists are of the opinion that the vast majority of earthquakes do not display early warning signals prior to the first p-waves reaching the surface, therefore earthquakes are likely to always remain stubbornly unpredictable. This does not mean that we will be unable to improve earthquake forecast, through probabilistic hazard assessment. It also does not mean that the disasters arising from earthquake are inevitable. We can still take significant steps to reduce exposure and vulnerability and reduce the impacts of earthquakes.

Other scientists disagree,  on the point of earthquake prediction, pointing to the anecdotal evidence which stretches back through historical archives around the world of animals predicting earthquakes far before modern technology would have us believe any indication of an earthquake existed. Is there any substance to these tales, and if so can it be used to support earthquake prediction?

Although devoid of substantial scientific evidence, the claim that early warning signs don’t exist fails to acknowledge the stories of animals abandoning their homes up to a month before an earthquake strikes. For centuries there have been reports of unusual animal activity prior to earthquakes: In 373 BC Greece it is documented that rats, weasels, snakes and centipedes abandoned their homes a month before a destructive earthquake struck, and in Italy toads disappeared from a pond where scientists were analysing their breeding patterns just days before a magnitude 5.9 earthquake killed over 300 people in 2009. Perhaps these animal behaviours can be used to predict the occurrence of earthquakes, but without knowing the nature of the signals which trigger their response it has limited applications in disaster risk reduction.

Figure 1- Frogs on logs. It has been suggested that aquatic organisms such as these may be able to predict earthquakes from changes in groundwater chemistry. (Source: https://www.pexels.com)

The problem with focusing so much on anecdotal evidence is that the stories are often augmented by the human imagination, an effect often seen in the game ‘Chinese Whispers’.  The result is that the unusual behaviour apparently displayed by the animals before earthquakes occur can become exaggerated and, in many cases, the reports only appear after the earthquake has struck. It is very well announcing a pet’s unusual behaviour after the disaster, but had the earthquake not occurred would the behaviour still have stood out as being so strikingly abnormal?

Animal behaviour is extremely complex and using this as a metric for earthquake prediction is not considered to be feasible because of the inconsistency of animal responses. This has not prevented at least one Chinese city from installing 24-hour surveillance on a snake farm with the intention of detecting unusual behaviour for the purposes of earthquake prediction. In 1975 officials successfully evacuated a city of one million people just before a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in Haicheng, China, purportedly based on abnormal animal behaviour. However, this has been rejected as substantial evidence for the power of animal foresight as this earthquake was one which was preceded by a number of low magnitude foreshocks which are thought to have given the governing body of Haicheng the confidence to evacuate the city, under the impression that a larger earthquake was on its way.

Figure 2 – Aftermath of an earthquake in 1971, San Fernando, California. Source:  USGS
Denver Library Photographic Collection.

As is almost always the case, the evidence from a number of different studies is contradictory and inconclusive, implying that the predictive signals, if present, may vary between earthquakes. Evidence for the ability of animals to predict earthquakes was found in a study in Peru – no animal movement was recorded by camera traps on the rainforest floor (an extremely unusual observation) five out of the seven days leading up to the magnitude seven Contamana earthquake that affected the area in 2011. Other studies, however, such as those performed in the 1970s by USGS, have found no correlation between earthquakes and the agitation of animals.

The evidence is patchy, but if there truly is a relationship between animal behaviour and earthquakes the identity of the signal that the animals are responding to remains a mystery. A paper released in 2011 describes a mechanism by which stressed rocks could release charged particles. These particles could then react with groundwater, producing chemical signatures which may be detected by aquatic and burrowing life. Other suggestions of potential signals include ground tilting, although this would have to be present only at miniscule levels not to be detected by current technology, or variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Currently research into the use of animals in earthquake detection is being led by Japan and China, two countries regularly affected by earthquakes and where a plethora of anecdotes relating to the powers of earthquake prediction by animals have originated. While earthquake prediction could help to reduce the impact of earthquakes on society, there are far more effective and immediate things that we can do. Ensuring properly constructed buildings and enforcing building codes, tackling the underlying social vulnerability (e.g., poverty, inequality) and improving governance structures and earthquake education are some examples.

Read more about disaster risk reduction in the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

New Paper: Geoscience Engagement in Global Development Frameworks

We have recently contributed to a new open access article included in a special volume coordinated by the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG)This article, synthesises the role of geoscientists in the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and discusses ways in which we can increase our engagement in the promotion, implementation and monitoring of these key global frameworks.

Abstract: During 2015, the international community agreed three socio-environmental global development frameworks, the: (i) Sustainable Development Goals; (ii) Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and (iii) Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Each corresponds to important interactions between environmental processes and society. Here we synthesise the role of geoscientists in the delivery of each framework, and explore the meaning of and justification for increased geoscience engagement (active participation). We first demonstrate that geoscience is fundamental to successfully achieving the objectives of each framework. We characterise four types of geoscience engagement (framework design, promotion, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation), with examples within the scope of the geoscience community. In the context of this characterisation, we discuss: (i) our ethical responsibility to engage with these frameworks, noting the emphasis on societal cooperation within the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics; and (ii) the need for increased and higher quality engagement, including an improved understanding of the science-policy-practice interface. Facilitating increased engagement is necessary if we are to maximise geoscience’s positive impact on global development.

PDF (open access) here: http://www.annalsofgeophysics.eu/index.php/annals/article/view/7460/