We've created 208 new minerals: Time for a new, human-influenced Anthropocene epoch?
From smelting and manufacturing, we've expanded to concrete, plastics, bottle glass, even marble countertops
Humans have created 208 new minerals, bolstering the argument that the planet has entered a new epoch in its geological history, a study being published today finds.
In the study, published in American Mineralogist, the researchers explain that the influx of minerals is the largest since the increase of oxygen in our atmosphere called the "Great Oxidation" two billion years ago, which helped to produce two-thirds of the 5,208 naturally occurring minerals we know of today.
The discovery helps to bolster the argument by some that we have moved from the Holocene epoch to the Anthropocene, the name indicating that it is a human-influenced age.
In 2016, the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy's Working Group on the Anthropocene suggested that our age officially be declared the Anthropocene, because of several factors including evidence that there's been a marked acceleration in chemical changes, changing sea levels and climate around the planet. All of those have been directly linked to human activity.
This new study found that the introduction of 208 new minerals makes up almost four per cent of the 5,208 minerals officially recognized by the International Mineralogical Association.
Locations around world
The new minerals have been reported around the world from such places as a Tunisian shipwreck, to mines, to museums.
One of the new minerals, chalconatronite, was found in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec. It's typically found on ancient Egyptian artifacts, as was the case there. It's an example of how these new minerals are being found around the planet.
Most of the new minerals come from mining activities — ore dumps, slag, tunnel walls, mine water and even through mine fires.
These human-made minerals can occur through creating synthetic mineral-like compounds. For example, special crystals have been created in lasers.
Digging deep underground and exposing otherwise unexposed areas is also another method in which they can be created. Other methods are through the global distribution of minerals that would otherwise not be found in certain areas.
I think this is a fascinating exploration of what nature can do with humans being part of that natural process.- Robert Hazen , Deep Carbon Observatory
The fact that these minerals are pervasive around the world and will last for millions of years is being taken as proof that we have truly entered into a human-influenced Anthropocene epoch.
"What happens in a million years, 10 million years or 100 million years, when geologists come back and look at the sediments of our age?" asked Robert Hazen of the Deep Carbon Observatory and lead author of the study.
"What does that look like from a mineralogical view? There is no question: we are in a unique time, a distinctive time."
The human activity started as far back as ancient times, when smelting and manufacturing began, but has been greatly accelerated over the past 300 years. From plastics to bottle glass to marble countertops, the evidence of human activity is everywhere.
Signs of the new epoch
Alex Wolfe, adjunct professor of paleobiology at the University of Alberta,, contributed to the working group study on the Anthropocene last year. He said human influence on our planet, particularly when it comes to geology is apparent. One only has to look to concrete.
"In the last 50 years, humans have produced enough concrete … to pave a skin about two millimetres thick across the whole planet," Wolfe said.
Hazen agreed. A future geologist would only have to take a pick-axe to dig and find evidence of humans: rebar, concrete, polished granite, even polished gems that wouldn't otherwise be seen in that form.
"We have a pervasive mineralogical horizon all over Earth's surface that's distinctive from anything that's ever come before," Hazen said.
Hazen said that there are likely hundreds more human-created minerals and he hopes this study will inspire people to go out to find new minerals.
Not all bad
While some may see the human influence as a bad, possibly destructive occurrence, Hazen takes a different approach.
"In a time when we're concerned about humans and the reduced biodiversity of plants and animals, here's a case where humans are causing an incredible diversification of different kinds of crystals. And I don't see any sort of down side. I think this is a fascinating exploration of what nature can do with humans being part of that natural process."
If the new epoch is indeed confirmed and officially recognized by the International Union of Geological Sciences, the Holocene will be the shortest epoch in Earth's history, having lasted only about 12,000 years, far shorter than the millions separating others.