Scientists have come up with a new way of conceptualizing humankind’s impact on Planet Earth. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the technosphere.
Coined by Peter K. Haff, Professor Emeritus of Geology and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University, the term attempts to encapsulate in geological terms the bulk of human artifice, from houses and roads, mines, factories and farms, books and pens, computer systems and tonnes of discarded waste. In essence, the technosphere represents the “summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise,” according to authors of a new study published in the journal The Anthropocence Review by an international team of researchers and led by geologists at the University of Leicester in the U.K.
Scientists typically describe the Earth as consisting of four different “layers” – the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and the biosphere. The technosphere adds another piece to the puzzle.
And we’re talking about a lot of stuff. In total, the technosphere is estimated to represent about 30 trillion tonnes of materials, which spread out over the surface of the Earth would create a layer several inches thick and weighing about 60 kilos per square metre.
“The technosphere is one way to think, and I think it’s quite a fruitful way to think, of the ways in which humans are impacting the Earth and in fact changing not just its ecology and biology and so forth but its geological processes,” says Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., and co-author of the new study, in conversation with news outlet Seeker.
Thinking ahead, the researchers have even defined the world’s “technofossils” as those human-made products that will eventually find their way underground, to be preserved for umpteen years into the future. The variety of different products available for fossilization is astronomical (as anyone currently paying for a storage unit can attest), meaning that there are far more soon-to-be technofossils than there are recognized fossils and biotic species on Earth.
How does the technosphere differ from the other global systems? Mostly, by its lack of interpenetration, say the researchers. “Compared with the biosphere, though, it is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show,” says Professor Zalasiewicz. “This might be a barrier to its further success – or halt it altogether. The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet.”
The geological time unit said to be associated with the technosphere is the Anthropocene, a term that has a longer pedigree, dating back to the 1960s, but which has only recently been pushed by experts as an apt descriptor of a new epoch in Earth’s history. Opinions diverge over when the Anthropocene commenced, with some linking it to the start of the Industrial Revolution while others point to the dawn of the Atomic Age, roughly 70 years ago. Either way, the impetus for the new classification comes from the sheer magnitude of current human activity and its impact on the planet’s physical processes. Thus, as the Holocene is used to describe the whole climatic epoch since the last ice age, so, too, the Anthropocene is thought to have ushered in a new dynamic to Earth’s systems, say the experts.
“If we keep using ‘Holocene’ as the label for this time, it’s as if we’re saying nothing has changed,” says Simon Donner, associate professor of atmosphere and ocean science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, in conversation with Canadian Geographic. “But the planet has changed geochemically. It is not what it was a hundred years ago,” who studies the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems.”