Definition of the anthropocene: A view from the underworld

Ian J. Fairchild*, Silvia Frisia

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Annually laminated stalagmites from natural caves and limestone mines capture a number of significant environmental and climatic signals during the anthropogenically disturbed era. The effects of forest clearance, or development of agricultural or industrial practices, can be marked by changes in soil or hydrological responses leading to shifts in both chemical (e.g. carbon and oxygen isotope ratios or trace elements) and physical (e.g. fabric, thickness of laminae) signals. However, these signals are diachronous because of the spatial heterogeneity of human societies. Twentieth-century changes in atmospheric composition are known from speleothems at several sites and demonstrate pollution disturbance of the sulphur cycle and the signal provided by the 1950s rise in radiocarbon caused by atmospheric nuclear tests. This latter is a global signal and hence a strong candidate to define the start of the Anthropocene, although other considerations, including comparison with instrumental archives, would favour an earlier timing. An attractive option is the climate amelioration marking the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-nineteenth century, which is marked in Alpine and other Northern Hemisphere areas. Examples are illustrated from the Grotta di Ernesto cave to illustrate the appearance of a putative mid-nineteenth-century boundary.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-254
Number of pages16
JournalGeological Society Special Publication
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ocean Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Geology


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