The Weekly Carboholic: good-bye Holocene, hello Anthropocene?


Until recently, according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, we have been in the Holocene geologic epoch. The Holocene started about 10,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age and has persisted until recently. However, if some stratigraphers have their way, at the end of this year’s ICS meeting, we’ll be officially living in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene – a period in geologic time dominated by humanity’s influence.

Texas A&M’s online oceanography textbook Our Ocean Planet gives a number of good justifications for the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene:

  1. The complete conversion of 15% of all ice-free land surface to human use.
  2. The partial conversion of 55% of all ice-free land surface to human use
  3. The appropriation of 25% to 40% of total net primary productivity of the planet for human use.
  4. The damming of most of the world’s rivers. Humans have extensively altered river systems through impoundments and diversions to meet their water, energy, and transportation needs. Today, there are > 45,000 dams above 15 m high, capable of holding back > 6500 km3 of water, or about 15% of the total annual river runoff globally.
  5. The total biomass of the world’s population increased to roughly 40 megatons of carbon. To put this number into perspective, consider: The biomass of all life is roughly 500 Gigatons of carbon, the biomass of all wild vertebrates on land is roughly 5 megatons, and the biomass of all vertebrates in the ocean is about 50 megatons of carbon. We have eight time the mass of all wild land vertebrates, and about the same biomass as all the fish and whales in the ocean. Domesticated animals have a biomass of roughly 100 megatons of carbon. The biomass of our animals is about 20 times the mass of all wild vertebrates on land, and 50% larger than the mass of all vertebrates in the ocean.

This is a small sampling of the reasons given, and while some of the data may be out of date, you get the idea. There is a massive amount of information at the Texas A&M website to support this contention.

In addition, Living on Earth interviewed Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, chairman of the United Kingdom Stratigrapher Commission about the Anthropocene. His basic argument that it’s time for a new geological epoch comes from the fact that the rocks that are in the process of being created now are unlike anything else in the natural geologic history of the Earth, and that materials like asphalt, concrete, glass, steel, and plastic, the likely mass extinction of animals, human-assisted migrations of entire populations of plants and animals from one continent or ocean to another, and even the wholesale alteration of the Earth’s climate means that humanity’s impact on the fundamental geology of the planet is so great that a geological epoch is more than a good idea, it’s a necessity.


The USDA plant hardiness zones have been the (arguably) gold standard for what plants would survive in what parts of the country ever since it was last updated in 1990. But due to new climate data gathered between 1987 and 2001, the USDA is doing a major revision later this year. And in general, the revision shows that hardiness zones have moved up in elevation and north toward higher latitudes, both expected results of global heating and both of which have been observed.

Also, check out this Wired Science/PBS piece. Be aware, though – it’s long.


According to a very interesting post at Climate Progress, the GOP minority in the House of Representative is pushing for opening the outer continental shelf (OCS), opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and mining/cooking oil out of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming’s oil shale deposits. Climate Progress has the entire letter, but I’ve excerpted the interesting bits below:

To increase the supply American-made energy in environmentally sound ways, the legislation will:
* Open our deep water ocean resources, which will provide an additional 3 million barrels of oil per day;
* Open the Arctic coastal plain, which will provide an additional 1 million barrels of oil per day; and
* Allow development of our nation¹s shale oil resources, which could provide an additional 2.5 million barrels of oil per day

3 million barrels per day from the OCS is a pipe dream. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) analysis says that the OCS won’t do squat for total production:

The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017. Total domestic production of crude oil from 2012 through 2030 in the OCS access case is projected to be 1.6 percent higher than in the reference case, and 3 percent higher in 2030 alone, at 5.6 million barrels per day. For the lower 48 OCS, annual crude oil production in 2030 is projected to be 7 percent higher—2.4 million barrels per day in the OCS access case compared with 2.2 million barrels per day in the reference case (Figure 20). Because oil prices are determined on the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant. (Source: Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf

In other words, the price impact is “insignificant” and the additional supply only 200,000 more barrels per day in the lower 48 states (where the OCS drilling moratorium applies) by 2030. And that assumes that state moratoriums are lifted as well, something that is by no means guaranteed. In other words, Republican Leader John Boehner, Republican Whip Roy Blunt, Conference Chairman Adam Putnam, and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (the authors of the letter) are liars.

Similarly, the EIA expects that opening ANWR would produce between 510,000 barrels and 1.45 million barrels per day, but the most likely USGS scenario (the “mean” value) is only 730,000 barrels per day, and it ANWR production doesn’t even start until 2018. But here’s the kicker:

The opening of ANWR is projected to have its largest oil price reduction impacts as follows: a reduction in low-sulfur, light crude oil prices of $0.41 per barrel (2006 dollars) in 2026 for the low oil resource case, $0.75 per barrel in 2025 for the mean oil resource case, and $1.44 per barrel in 2027 for the high oil resource case, relative to the reference case.

In other words, even if ANWR production does produce as much as the letter’s authors say it will, they’re still lying about it lowering the price appreciably. $1.27 less per barrel of crude oil in 2027 is useless to the “American families [continuing] to be crushed by high gas prices”.

As for oil shale, the 2.5 million additional barrels per day is the total that we might be able to get from American tar sands, the OCS, shale, and heavy oil in California and Alaska, not the amount from oil shale alone. A GAO study that I found for my debunking of Gingrich’s “Drill here. Drill now. Pay less.” scheme estimated that total oil shale production in 2018 would be between 500,000 and 1 million barrels, not 2.5 million. And that doesn’t even take into account that Shell Oil, the company with the most developed oil shale plan, isn’t even planning to decide whether to try to scale up to commercial shale oil extraction until 2015 at the earliest (that’s when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 permits companies to scale up from 160 acre R&D parcels to 5,100 acre parcels). It’s not realistic that Shell can build the power plant(s) required to electrically heat up shale deposits enough to extract the oil and acquire sufficient water rights to produce 1 million barrels of oil just 3 years after getting approval for 5,100 acre research and development parcels. So, with regard to oil shale production, the GOP House leaders who signed this letter are lying yet again.

As far as some of the other policies that the letter posts, I’ll touch on just one:

Provide a monetary prize for being the first to develop an economically feasible, super-fuel-efficient vehicle (reaching 100 miles-per-gallon)

The GOP leadership apparently chose to lead from behind on this issue, because there is a private prize for this exact thing already – the Progressive Automotive X Prize. Progressive Insurance has provided the X Prize Foundation $10 million to the person or persons who develop a car that is can be mass produced and isn’t a concept car. After all, you can build nearly anything once, but if people won’t buy it because they think it’s unsafe or it costs too much or it doesn’t have enough storage space for luggage, then it doesn’t really matter.

Many of the other proposals are actually good things that should become law this year or next – permanent tax credits for renewable energy, a renewable energy trust fund, and tax incentives for purchasing fuel efficient vehicles and improve their energy efficiency. These issues deserve bipartisan support. But the oil production issues are outright lies being told for political advantage, and it’s important to identify them as such.

6 replies »

  1. Thanks for the video, Brian. I don’t know if “last word” is quite right for the zone hardiness map, as there are exceptions to every rule (micro-climates especially). But i’ve been witnessing this process too. Last year our overwintering of potted nursery stock (not hardly the best way for a plant to survive) jumped from roughly 70% success to somewhere in the upper 90’s.

    It’s not all good news for gardeners though. Warmer winters are one thing, but spring freezes/frosts are another. That hydrangea that you’ve always wanted to grow will come up but likely get zapped back. And the unpredictability of weather in a changing climate is a real test for horticulturists.

    As for the combination of higher nutrient levels and increased CO2, well, any dope grower could have told them that. It’s a shame that some of the best horticulturists of going on two generations now are completely unknown because they hide in basements, attics, and closets. Those guys will push a plant to many times normal CO2 concentrations. Though it should be noted that they work in completely controlled environments and so have the ability to evacuate the CO2. Which makes me wonder how many environmentalist hippy dope growers blithely pump CO2 into the atmosphere on purpose…

    Full disclosure: i’m legit, but have a serious interest in indoor food cultivation. Most of the information on it has to be adapted from marijuana growing. Those folks are light-years ahead of the hydro gardens at Epcot. Their knowledge and application of plant/soil chemistry is simply amazing. It could be a boon to society, but they aren’t going to share what they know openly because they don’t want to go to jail. And it’s a shame, because their knowledge could help feed the world. Using their techniques, i’ve brought tomatoes (yes, real tomatoes) to harvest a month early and beaten the stated yield of the variety. (organically and without C02 i might add). Sorry for the essay in a comment thread.

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  3. Lex:

    Please don’t apologize. That was fascinating.

    Brian: Thanks as always for the immense amount of work you do on Carboholic. It’s a great education.

  4. Brian, great work again!

    Looking at our influence on the planet on a geological time scale may be one of the better ways to convey how “earth-shattering” our presence has been.

    The concept of a new geological epoch was first brought to my attention by Alan Weisman who wrote “The World Without Us” (I still need to read that book). In an interview he imagined the strata from this era being a thin layer of white from all of the plastics we use. And that is if we all disappear from the face of the earth right now. I wonder what the future geologist/archeologist will see a million years after our species has run its course.

    Oh and another fascinating justification point to add to the other five you put up (from the same link):

    The mass of all motor vehicles is roughly 1,000 megatons. “Machines now need more carbon every year than humans do. The global food harvest now amounts to about 1.3 gigatons of carbon per year, whereas almost 1 gigaton of fossil carbon is used annually to produce metals and plastic from which machines are assembled, and about 4 gigatons of carbon are used each year to power them.” Smil (2002: 269).

  5. I’m encouraged by Progressive’s prize. There are probably a lot of people out there trying to win it. Thanks again, Brain, for keeping us up to speed.

    Thanks, too, Lex, for your comment.