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The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History

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The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth's History

The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History

Over the course of Earth’s history, there have been dramatic shifts in the landscape, climate, and biodiversity of the planet. And it is all archived underground.

Layers of the planet’s crust carry evidence of pivotal moments that changed the face of the Earth, such as the ice age and asteroid hits. And scientists have recently defined the next major epoch using this geological time scale—the Anthropocene.

In this infographic we dig deep into the Earth’s geological timeline to reveal the planet’s shift from one epoch to another, and the specific events that separate them.

Understanding the Geological Timeline

The Earth’s geological history is divided into many distinct units, from eons to ages. The time span of each varies, since they’re dependent on major events like new species introduction, as well as how they fit into their parent units.

Geochronologic unitTime spanExample
EonSeveral hundred million years to two billion yearsPhanerozoic
EraTens to hundreds of millions of yearsCenozoic
PeriodMillions of years to tens of millions of yearsQuaternary
EpochHundreds of thousands of years to tens of millions of yearsHolocene
AgeThousands of years to millions of yearsMeghalayan

Note: Subepochs (between epochs and ages) have also been ratified for use in 2022, but are not yet clearly defined.

If we were to cut a mountain in half, we could notice layers representing these changing spans of time, marked by differences in chemical composition and accumulated sediment.

Some boundaries are so distinct and so widespread in the geologic record that they are known as “golden spikes.” Golden spikes can be climatic, magnetic, biological, or isotopic (chemical).

Earth’s Geological Timeline Leading Up to the Anthropocene

The Earth has gone through many epochs leading up to the modern Anthropocene.

These include epochs like the Early Devonian, which saw the dawn of the first early shell organisms 400 million years ago, and the three Jurassic epochs, which saw dinosaurs become the dominant terrestrial vertebrates.

Over the last 11,700 years, we have been living in the Holocene epoch, a relatively stable period that enabled human civilization to flourish. But after millennia of human activity, this epoch is quickly making way for the Anthropocene.

EpochIts start (MYA = Million Years Ago)
Anthropocene70 Years Ago
Holocene0.01 MYA
Pleistocene2.58 MYA
Pliocene5.33 MYA
Miocene23.04 MYA
Oligocene33.90 MYA
Eocene56.00 MYA
Paleocene66.00 MYA
Cretaceous145.0 MYA
Jurassic201.40 MYA
Triassic251.90 MYA
Lopingian259.50 MYA
Guadalupian273.00 MYA
Cisuralian300.00 MYA
Pennsylvanian323.40 MYA
Mississippian359.30 MYA
Devonian419.00 MYA
Silurian422.70 MYA
Ludlow426.70 MYA
Wenlock432.90 MYA
Llandovery443.10 MYA
Ordovician486.90 MYA
Furongian497.00 MYA
Miaolingian521.00 MYA
Terreneuvian538.80 MYA

The Anthropocene is distinguished by a myriad of imprints on the Earth including the proliferation of plastic particles and a noticeable increase in carbon dioxide levels in sediments.

A New Chapter in Earth’s History

The clearest identified marker of this geological time shift, and the chosen golden spike for the Anthropocene, is radioactive plutonium from nuclear testing in the 1950s.

The best example has been found in the sediment of Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada. The lake has two distinct layers of water that never intermix, causing falling sediments to settle in distinct layers at its bed over time.

While the International Commission on Stratigraphy announced the naming of the new epoch in July 2023, Crawford Lake is still in the process of getting approved as the site that marks the new epoch. If selected, our planet will officially enter the Crawfordian Age of the Anthropocene.

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Environment

The Rise in America’s Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Disasters

From tropical cyclones to severe storms, the number of extreme weather disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion has climbed over time.

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A bar chart showing rising U.S. extreme weather disasters for each decade since the 1980s, with the view cut off part way through the 2010s.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Rise in U.S. Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Disasters

Since 1980, there have been 383 extreme weather or climate disasters where the damages reached at least $1 billion. In total, these disasters have cost more than $2.7 trillion.

Created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council, this chart shows how these disasters have been increasing with each passing decade.

A Growing Concern

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracks each disaster and estimates the cost based on factors like physical damages and time losses such as business interruption. They adjust all costs by the Consumer Price Index to account for inflation.

DecadeTotal No. of EventsTotal Inflation-Adjusted Cost
1980s33$216B
1990s57$330B
2000s67$611B
2010s131$978B
2020s*95$568B

* Data is as of May 8, 2024.

Both the number and cost of extreme weather disasters has grown over time. In fact, not even halfway through the 2020s the number of disasters is over 70% of those seen during the entire 2010s. 

Severe storms have been the most common, accounting for half of all billion-dollar disasters since 1980. In terms of costs, tropical cyclones have caused the lion’s share—more than 50% of the total. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005, remains the most expensive single event with $199 billion in inflation-adjusted costs.

Electricity and Extreme Weather Disasters

With severe storms and other disasters rising, the electricity people rely on is significantly impacted. For instance, droughts have been associated with a decline in hydropower, which is an important source of U.S. renewable electricity generation

Disasters can also lead to significant costs for utility companies. Hawaii Electric faces $5 billion in potential damages claims for the 2023 wildfire, which is nearly eight times its insurance coverage. Lawsuits accuse the company of negligence in maintaining its infrastructure, such as failing to strengthen power poles to withstand high winds. 

Given that the utilities industry is facing the highest risk from extreme weather and climate disasters, some companies have begun to prepare for such events. This means taking steps like burying power lines, increasing insurance coverage, and upgrading infrastructure. 

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