Problem solving in the Anthropocene

April 3, 2014

DSCN3814William Gosling on:

Barnosky, A.D. & Hadly, E.A. (2014) Problem solving in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 76-77.

The short communication by Barnosky & Hadly examines the current fundamental environmental ‘problem’ for human populations  through the lens of the “Anthropocene” concept, i.e. will some human populations:

  1. continue to develop using a “business as usual” model that has been shown to elevate environmental risk to all human populations, or
  2. alter societal practice in an attempt to reduce the environmental risks now and for future generations.

Barnosky & Hadly straightforwardly and succinctly present the case that, based on the weight of evidence from the collective scientific endeavour of the global community, humans are now fundamental altering the functioning of planet Earth; a view further supported by the recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC, 2014).Throughout the period of anatomically modern human existence (Homo sapiens sapiens, the last c. 200,000 years) populations have experienced a variety of environmental changes. Exposure to environmental change has had both positive and negative impacts on societal development (e.g. Gosling & Williams, 2013; Hodell et al., 1995).

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Anthropogenic climate change and the nature of Earth System science

April 2, 2014

Core teddyFrazer Bird on:

Oldfield, F., Steffen, W. 2014. Anthropogenic climate change and the nature of Earth System Science. The Anthropocene Review,1, 70-75.

This paper is a very interesting read for anyone working in the field of palaeoecology. It briefly discusses some of the key criticism of earth systems science research and demonstrates how a good understanding of our past is critical to our future projections.

 “Nature of the Science”

Often Earth System Science is described as being “fuzzy”. It doesn’t always fit the model Popperian approach to science whereby refutable hypothesis are defined and tested. The authors point out however that this is somewhat an unfair criticism. The Earth system is complex, non-linear and often there are no cause-consequence relationships. The scientific method involved is much more complex and often we are trying to understand phenomena that occur over immense timescales. To demonstrate this a little further the authors use the example of freshwater acidification.

“By choosing a variety of field-based case studies with or without key characteristics, each of which was a putative cause of acidification, it proved possible to isolate past variables such as land-use change or catchment afforestation and thereby home in on the only remaining hypothesis not rejected by the evidence, namely the dissemination of industrially generated SO2.”

Rather than testing and refuting or accepting whether industrial generated S02 was causing acidification, cumulative research showed it to be the universal variable across multiple examples. Often when we make inferences about environmental change we have multiple working hypotheses which stand until more and more evidence arises to support one over the others.

 “Toward Projective science”

Projecting the future consequences of climate change is of vital importance for society and critical to policy and mitigation strategies. Climate models are really the only tools at our disposal in trying to understand future scenarios. However models alone cannot provide us with all the answers, the paper demonstrates that the only evidence we ever have is from the past.

“All the evidence we have regarding environmental change comes from the past, whether of the previous few seconds as changes are logged continuously, or of the more remote past revealed through the study of environmental archives.”

If we want to refine our models and have better projections in the future then these tools must have the ability to capture the empirical evidence we have from the past. Future projections are based on data-model comparisons; this is an interactive relationship that is ever refined as each side gains in knowledge and skills.


Population health in the Anthropocene

April 1, 2014

HumanHealthMcMichael, AJ. 2014. Population health in the Anthropocene: Gains, losses and emerging trends. The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, 1: pp. 44-56.

Last week we changed our regular lab meeting, when we all normally discuss a particular paper, to each presenting a general view on the articles published in the first issue of the new journal The Anthopocene Review (SAGE publication). In this lab meeting each member presented and lead discussion of issues within a different paper.

In my case, I had a very interesting paper by Anthony J McMichael about changes in life expectancy (Human population health) related to the human impact caused at global scale during the Anthropocene (defined in the paper as the last 200 yr). Here is a brief summary of the main topics discussed in the paper:

The paper deals with life expectancy trends during the human history on Earth, understood not as the individual health care but as a population or community collective (the “herd” effect), being this two independent topics.

The first section is a nice trip for human evolution and its relationship with the environment, distinguishing three different phases of environment-climate-human relationship:

  1. The Pleistocene (c. 2.6 million – 11,000 years ago): characterised by environment-driven changes;
  2. The Holocene (c. 11,000 – 200 years ago): with cultural-driven changes promoted by the potential of farming. Survival, although relying in culture changes, was still dependent on climatic stability (survival changes caused or amplified by adverse conditions); and
  3. The Anthropocene (last 200 year, as defined in this paper): when humans have become a dominant force on the world stage, being nowadays the major contributor to climatic change.

Then, in the second part of the paper, McMichael explains through several examples how the longer (time) and larger (spatial) consequences of current anthropogenic climatic change are crucial for human survival. The discussion is driven through a wide range of topics, such as the epidemiological transition (or), the environmentalist’s paradox (or), the distributive justice (or), urban sustainability and ecological footprint, or the coming famine.

Finally, the author shows several direct and indirect pathways by which changes in climatic conditions will affect the human health, encouraging the urgent need of an environmentally sustainable way of living.

If you are interested to find out what your ecological footprint might be try these online tests:

The Anthropocene: A governance perspective

March 31, 2014

EarthSystemGovernanceNick Loughlin on:

Biermann, F. (2014) The Anthropocene: A governance perspective. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 57-61.

This comment piece looks at the Anthropocene as a political construct and a tool to constrain the concept of ‘Earth System Governance’ within the social sciences. To quote the author ‘the Anthropocene is political’ and this is indeed the case when attempting to organise disparate and often conflicting bodies into a global community that can guide society to a way of working within nature, but it is also a biological, ecological and geological term and as such a scientific rational to understanding our Anthropocene is required not just a political one.

The writer succinctly demonstrates the interdependence of countries, social groups and global organisations within the modern era along with the intergenerational aspect of a range of social and environmental issues. However it places the Anthropocene as a marketing tool targeted at a political audience rather than a scientific term that denotes a currently unverified chronostratigraphic unit.

It is in no doubt that humans are a significant driving force behind changes to the biosphere and the concept of ‘Earth System Governance’ as described within this paper demonstrates the wide ranging global issues that require consensus.

A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene

March 28, 2014


Human impacts on environments

Human impact on environments takes many forms and varies in space and time

Phil Jardine on:

Fischer-Kowalski, M., Krausmann, F. & Pallua, I. (2014) A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene: Modes of subsistence, population size and human impact on Earth. The Anthropocene Review, 1(1), 8 – 33.

Regardless of whether it’s worthwhile designating the “Anthropocene” as a new geological epoch (I have my doubts), determining the trajectory of human impact upon the Earth system is important. It provides context for how people see their relationship with natural systems and resources, and can help shape environmental policy and its acceptance by the public. But where to put the onset of this impact – where does the Anthropocene start? The authors of this paper belong to the Institute of Social Ecology at Klagenfurt University, Austria, and take a social sciences approach to the problem. Rather than focusing on physical evidence in the environment, as a geologist might do to delimit a geological epoch, Fischer-Kowalski et al. use a model where human impact is measured as the product of population size, affluence (= energy available per person) and technology, summed over three modes of subsistence: hunter-gatherers, agrarian and industrial. This avoids problems of time lags between human activity and the signature it leaves, and allows the authors to pull apart different driving factors across different societal types.

Using this approach shows a definite shift at around AD 1500: human impact was gradually increasing prior to this, but there is a sharp upturn at ~AD 1500, energy use becomes more important for amplifying the impact of population growth, and a shift from biomass to fossil fuel driven energies enhances this further. While there are problems with this approach – determining energy throughput for long-dead societies will always involve a lot of extrapolation from modern patterns – the authors are careful in stating their assumptions, and going through possible issues with the model itself. It would have been nice to see a comparison between the model output and the empirical evidence though, to help bridge the gap between these two different takes on the same question.

The technofossil record of humans

March 27, 2014


Can you spot the techno fossil?

Can you spot the technofossil?

Hayley Keen on:

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Waters, C.N., Barnosky, A.D. & Haff, P. (2014) The technofossil record of humans. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 34-43.

An interesting research article introducing a stratigraphy (technostratigraphy) for and within the Anthropocene, stratigraphic markers are defined as “fossils” left behind by humans (technofossils); for example Iron Age tools from around 1000 BC. The article is driven by the need to:

  1. characterise the deposits, and
  2. date and correlate strata,

of (and within) the Anthropocene in a similar manner to other periods of geological time. By using technofossils from the different stages of homonid technological development Zalasiewicz et al. argue that a chronology can be developed and applied to the Anthropocene concept. Furthermore, Zalasiewicz et al. provide examples of how technofossils, such as pottery and mobile phones, could be used to produce a high resolution (sub-centennial) dating and correlation of strata; so far an unreachable target for other periods of geological time. The paper provides a thought provoking insight the definition of strata throughout geological time, and a novel technique into how this could be done in the Anthropocene.



The Anthropocene Review – reviewed

March 26, 2014

AnthropoceneReviewThe Anthropocene Review is a new journal focusing on the impact of humans on planet Earth through time; information on the latest publications can be found on the associated blog.

Given that much of the research we are interested in relates human-environment interactions in the past we decided to take a closer look at the range of articles being covered by this journal. Our thoughts on seven articles published in the first issue of The Anthropocene Review will appear in a series of blog posts soon. To get started here are a list of the papers we will be covering:

Full Anthropocene Review table of contents here.




Cultural differences: archaeology and palaeoecology

October 1, 2013

Human modification of the landscape in the Andes (Peru)

Human modification of the landscape in the Andes (Peru)

Whilst working on intergrating palaeoecological and archaeological data for a recent publication (Gosling & Williams, 2013) I was struck by the range of sources I had to go to to obtain data from the two different disciplines. The paper focuses on the how societies in the high Andes have developed over the last 5000 years and the role, if any, that changes in natural resource (ecosystem service) avaliability might have played in pacing any societal changes. However, when I got the first set of review comments back I was left considering my (academic) resource base, how I accessed this, and how that influenced my ability to conduct research; especially when moving slightly outside the area of my specialism.

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Lake coring equipment

July 17, 2013

Trecking with sediment corer in the high Andes of Peru

Trecking with sediment corer in the high Andes of Peru

When it comes to collecting sediments from lakes its all about having the right tools for the job. Working in remote areas of the tropics we tend to favour the Colinvaux-Vohnout corer; supplied by Vince Vohnout at Geo-core). The advantages of this system are:

  1. its light-weight nature (can be backpacked or donkeyed into field sites), and 
  2. the cam system (which allows hammering to penetrate tough sediments).

    Eric Martinez carrying an Avon Redstart back out from Laguna Khomer Kotcha (Williams et al., 2011)

    Eric Martinez carrying an Avon Redstart back out from Laguna Khomer Kotcha (Williams et al., 2011a)

With the right platform (two banana boats and an A-frame) we have manged to retrive c. 20 m of sediment from  20 m of water (c. 40 m of drill rod extended); Lake Pacucha, Peru (Hillyer et al., 2009). More typically we use two Avon Redstart inflatables and a platform following the design of Colinvaux et al. (1999).

Recent debate on the International Paleolimnology Association list server saw recommendations for a number of other systems.

Including: UWITECH gravity corer, Pylonex gravity corer, Aquatic Research Instrument products, and modified systems by Jason Curtis at University of Florida.

I would be interested if anyone has any thoughts on the relative merits of these systems (or others) and there capabilities.

Photos and references below:

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The Mighty Midge

May 11, 2012

Fossil chironomid from the Andes

Chironomidae is a family of two-winged flies more commonly referred to as non biting midges. This diverse group of insects have been known for a long time to be sensitive environmental indicators. Early research in the field showed that the trophic status of lakes could be classified according to the characteristic chironomid assemblages found within them (Thienemann, 1922). Furthermore the head capsules of the larvae are well preserved within the sedimentary record. As a result palaeolimnological researchers became increasingly interested in the potential for using Chironomids to track the trophic development of a lake through time by examining the changing assemblages within the accumulated sediments. With geographically close lakes displaying significantly different midge faunas the potential for the insects being used as climatic indicators was dismissed and the following hypothesis became established: Chironomid assemblage composition reflects in-lake variables, e.g. lake depth, pH, dissolved oxygen, trophic status and substrate. However work by Walker and Matthews (1989) demonstrated that temperature was by far the most significant variable in controlling the broad scale distribution and abundance of midge fauna.

Walker and Matthews realised the potential for the non biting midge to be used as a palaeoclimatic indicator from two initial observations. Firstly within the fossil records, as climate began warming following the deglaciation of the northern hemisphere, the relative abundance of taxa associated with cold oligotrophic lakes (Heterotrissocladius) abruptly declined. Secondly they noticed the best analogues for late glacial assemblages were found in modern day arctic and alpine settings. Overall Walker and Matthews concluded that the northern limit of temperate taxon was controlled by cold summer air and/or water temperatures. The southern limit of Arctic species was instead driven by cold oxygenated refugia in the profundal zone of deep, temperate lakes. These temperatures were significant with respect to the insect’s life cycles as many species require critical temperature thresholds to complete pupation and emergence stages.

Since the pioneering work of Walker and Matthews (1989) and others the debate linking Chironomids to temperature has raged. Debate has centred upon what controls chironomid distribution and  how suitable, if at all, the insects are in the context of palaeoecological studies. Recently Velle et al. (2010) discussed some key factors which must be considered when working on chironomid based temperature resonstructions.

Below I present some of the debate around the midge-environment-temperature debate; focusing on both midge distribution and identification and the potential of this proxy as a indicator of past environmental and climatic change.

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