GRANITE PEAK PUBLICATIONS: Accompanying travelers to the national park since 2002

Living in the Anthropocene, Part III

stratospheric ozone hole images

Is the stratospheric ozone hole recovering? (Click for larger version.)

Can humans slow or counteract all the damage we’ve done? I recently learned about one bright spot (and there are probably many others). An AGU press conference in December explained why the ozone hole in the atmosphere over the Antarctic was found in 2012 to be the second smallest it had been since the 1980s. I barely remember the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone, but it was an important document [1]. Ratified by all 197 countries of the United Nations, it took effect on January 1, 1989. Since that time, controlling the production and release of substances like carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform, and many others has measurably slowed the shrinkage of the ozone hole. NASA scientists expect it to recover fully (with some bumps) by 2070.

The 21st century has seen a proliferation of individuals and groups interested in studying the Anthropocene and many others who are trying to mitigate its effects. There are scientific, governmental, and intergovernmental organizations working to turn around the effects brought upon us by our own actions. Although the idea of a new epoch began with geoscientists, anthropologists are getting into the act, too. The Working Group on the Anthropocene that I mentioned in Part I of this series wants to determine whether the Anthropocene should be considered another epoch in the Quarternary period or an age of the Holocene. This group is also charged with the task of deciding when the epoch or age began. The exact date may actually be arbitrary, but many people would place it at or before about 1800 A.D.; James Watt’s steam engine went into production in 1776, and the industrial age soon followed. Or did it begin when hunter-gatherers became farmers several millennia earlier? There are many options in between those extremes.

Why does a researcher and writer about Yellowstone Park care about the Anthropocene? And, more importantly, why should you care? I’ve enjoyed learning about science since childhood and, with two very different geoscientist husbands, I’ve been able to continue that interest for over half a century. I like to think about the big picture. Anyone who has children and grandchildren certainly cares what will happen to the younger generations.

Identifying a new epoch is one thing, but saving Earth from human destruction is a much larger challenge. Scientists and other scholars are looking at the problems and developing and interpreting the data. However, most solutions have to be left to governments and international cooperation. The Montreal Protocol was a step in the right direction. Now an alphabet soup of groups (GWSP, IHDP, IGBP, for three examples) work toward other solutions; there are dozens of such organizations.

Did you know there is a United Nations University? I didn’t until this month. They have groups working on aspects of Earth’s human-caused problems, such as the Global Water System Project and the International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is studying how much of the world’s land is really arable. The International Council for Science has created a brief video about their Future Earth vision.

My next post in this series will give examples of how individuals are making a difference.


[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the Montreal Protocol: and a New York Times article about the protocol’s effectiveness from December 9, 2013.