Daily Archives: 28 April 2014

The Anthropocene Begins: April 28, 1784

Figure from Watt's 1784 patent for a steam locomotive.

Figures from Watt’s 1784 patent for a steam locomotive.

On this date, James Watt’s patent for a steam locomotive was granted. What is especially noteworthy is that this date therefore can be considered as the beginning of the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch defined by the massive impact of humankind on the planet, according to Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, who coined the term. That impact will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled.

In 2000, in IGBP Newsletter 41, Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology, proposed using the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch. In regard to its start, they said:

To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.

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Welcome to the Anthropocene
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April 28, 1975 (a Monday)

On this date, Peter Gwynne, at the time the science editor of Newsweek, pulled together some interviews from scientists and wrote a nine-paragraph story, entitled “The Cooling World“, about how the planet was getting cooler. Ever since, Gwynne’s “global cooling” story – and a similar Time Magazine piece – have been brandished gleefully by those who say it shows global warming is not happening, or at least that scientists – and often journalists – don’t know what they are talking about.

Fox News loves to cite it. So does Rush Limbaugh. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has quoted the story on the Senate floor. That one article in 1975 was so brilliant, that it has managed to disprove over 33,000 scientifically researched papers written since.

His piece has been used by Forbes as evidence of what the magazine called “The Fiction of Climate Science.” It has been set to music on a YouTube video. It has popped up in a slew of finger-wagging blogs and websites dedicated to climate denial.

But, revisionist lore aside, it was hardly a cover story. It was a one-page article on page 64. It was, Gwynne concedes, written with a bit of hyperbole that sometimes marked the magazine’s prose: “There are ominous signs the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically…” the piece begins, and warns of a possible “dramatic decline in food production.”

Although the story observed – accurately – that there had been a gradual decrease in global average temperatures from about 1940, by about 1980 it was clear that Earth’s average temperature was headed upward.

Even today, “there is some degree of uncertainty about natural variability,” acknowledged Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education based in Oakland, California. “If it weren’t for the fact that humans had become a force of nature, we would be slipping back into an ice age, according to orbital cycles.”

But earth’s glacial rhythms are “being overridden by human activities, especially burning fossil fuels,” McCaffrey noted. The stories about global cooling “are convenient for people to trot out and wave around,” he said, but they miss the point:

What’s clear is we are a force of nature. Human activity – the burning of fossil fuels and land change – is having a massive influence. We are in the midst of this giant geoengineering experiment.