New planetary dashboard shows 'Great Acceleration' in human activity since 1950

January 15, 2015
Clouds over Australia are shown. Credit: NASA

Human activity, predominantly the global economic system, is now the prime driver of change in the Earth System (the sum of our planet's interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes), according to a set of 24 global indicators, or "planetary dashboard", published in the journal Anthropocene Review (on January, 19 2015).

The research charts the "Great Acceleration" in from the start of the in 1750 to 2010, and the subsequent changes in the Earth System - greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation and biodiversity deterioration.

"It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force," says lead author Professor Will Steffen, who led the joint project between the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Twelve indicators depict human activity, for example, economic growth (GDP), population, foreign direct investment, energy consumption, telecommunications, transportation and water use. Twelve indicators show changes in major environmental components of the Earth System, for example, the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and biodiversity. This new "planetary dashboard" highlights how the trajectories of Earth and human development are now tightly bound. The findings will be presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 21-24 January.

"When we first aggregated these datasets, we expected to see major changes but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern. The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say that around 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration," said Professor Steffen, a researcher at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

"After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet," he added.

Co-author IGBP Deputy Director, Dr Wendy Broadgate said, "The Great Acceleration indicators allow us to distinguish the signal from the noise. Earth is in a quantifiably different state than before. Several significant Earth System processes are now driven by human consumption and production."

Another co-author, Dr Lisa Deutsch, Senior Lecturer at the Stockholm Resilience Centre notes that: "Of all the socio-economic trends only construction of new large dams seems to show any sign of the bending of the curves - or a slowing of the Great Acceleration. Only one Earth System trend indicates a curve that may be the result of intentional human intervention - the success story of ozone depletion. The levelling off of marine fisheries capture since the 1980s is unfortunately not due to marine stewardship, but to overfishing."

The findings provide strong evidence that in recent decades key components of the Earth System have moved beyond the natural variability exhibited in the last 12,000 years, a period geologists call the Holocene. The Holocene, Latin for "entirely recent", began at the end of the last ice age and provided the stability for agriculture to develop, leading eventually to townships and cities to flourish.

The trajectory of the Anthropocene. Credit: SRC/IGBP/F Pharand Deschenes

The Great Acceleration trends support the proposal that Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, coined by researchers Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000. Since then, the onset of the Anthropocene has been keenly contested by geologists, Earth System scientists and others, even though the term has not yet been formalised by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Some say the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago - the Neolithic Age - is a likely candidate. Others say the industrial revolution, around the late 1700s.

The new paper argues that, "Of all the candidates for a start date for the Anthropocene, the beginning of the Great Acceleration is by far the most convincing from an Earth System science perspective. It is only beyond the mid-20th century that there is clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are beyond the range of variability of the Holocene, and driven by human activities and not by natural variability."

Furthermore, choosing the beginning of the Great Acceleration leads to a possible specific start date: when the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert on Monday 16 July 1945.

"Radioactive isotopes from this detonation were emitted to the atmosphere and spread worldwide entering the sedimentary record to provide a unique signal of the start of the Great Acceleration, a signal that is unequivocally attributable to human activities," the paper reports.

The research explores the underlying drivers of the Great Acceleration: predominantly globalisation.

The bulk of economic activity, and so too, for now, the lion's share of consumption, remain largely within the OECD countries, which in 2010 accounted for about 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. This points to the profound scale of global inequality, which distorts the distribution of the benefits of the Great Acceleration and confounds international efforts, for example climate agreements, to deal with its impacts on the Earth System. However, the paper shows that recently, global production, traditionally based within OECD countries, has shifted towards BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Moreover, the mushrooming middle classes in BRICS nations are driving greater consumption here too.

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The accelerated impacts of human activity on the Earth over the past 60 years have reached 'planetary-scale' proportions, in turn driving the earth into a new geological age. Credit: ANU Media

About one half of the global population now lives in urban areas and about third of the has completed the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. This shift is evident in several indicators. Most of the post-2000 rise in fertilizer consumption, paper production and motor vehicles has occurred in the non-OECD world.

Coinciding with the publication of the Great Acceleration indicators, researchers also led by Professor Steffen have published a new assessment of the concept of "planetary boundaries" in the journal Science. The international team of 18 scientists identified two core planetary boundaries: climate change and "biosphere integrity". Altering either could "drive the Earth System into a new state." The planetary boundaries concept, first published in 2009, identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. The new research confirms many of the boundaries and provides updated analysis and quantification for several of them including phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, land use and biodiversity.

The original 24 indicators were published in the first IGBP synthesis in 2004, when Professor Steffen was IGBP Executive Director. The term 'Great Acceleration' was not used until 2005 at the Dahlem Conference on the history of the human-environment relationship, which brought together many IGBP scientists. This new research is part of IGBP's final synthesis, which will be completed in 2015.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy has set up a working group to analyse the validity of the Anthropocene claim. Professor Steffen is a member of this working group, which is due to report its conclusions in 2016.

Explore further: Man-made changes bring about new epoch in Earth's history

More information: The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration (Anthropocene Review) 15 January 2015. anr.sagepub.com/content/early/recent

Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet (Science) 15 January 2015. www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1259855

IGBP First Synthesis, Global Change and the Earth System: a planet under pressure (Springer) 2004 Open Access www.igbp.net/publications/igbpbookseries/igbpbookseries/globalchangeandtheearthsystem2004.5.1b8ae20512db692f2a680007462.html

A safe operating space for humanity (Nature) 24 September 2009. www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7263/full/461472a.html

Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity (Ecology and Society) 14 (2), 32. www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

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13 comments

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huckmucus
1 / 5 (3) Jan 16, 2015
Entropy.
richard_f_cronin
1 / 5 (4) Jan 16, 2015
Without a doubt, homo sapiens is a force in Nature. European immigrants almost drove the American buffalo to the brink of extinction and decimated the lives and culture of the Native Americans. Today, we revere and preserve the buffalo. Would anyone of Native American ancestry prefer to go back in time when they fed their families by stalking buffalo with bows and arrows ? Buffaloes are pretty big, mean creatures. Same story with whaling. Should all of us with Old World ancestors get back in our boats and leave the New World ? Let the buffalo roam. Should we fill in the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Erie Canal ? Should we forget the knowledge of nuclear physics ? Yes, humans have an impact on this planet. So did meteors, earthquakes, volcanoes, lightning strikes, Ice Ages, and the vastly warmer Interglacials. I think groups like the International Commission on Stratigraphy are too presumptious for their own good.
greenonions
5 / 5 (6) Jan 16, 2015
richard_f_cronin - why do we always have to immediately resort to false choices? How is studying the impact that 7 billion humans are having on the planet - suggesting that we should revert to a hunter gatherer society? Surely it is smart to see if we are over fishing our oceans - to see if we are truly in danger of collapsing the food web? Do you not support the clean air legislation around the world that is trying to keep carcinogens, and other pollutants out of our lungs?
Scroofinator
1 / 5 (2) Jan 16, 2015
After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system


Hmm, I wonder if that has anything to do with going away from the gold standard and the subsequent end of WWII?

choosing the beginning of the Great Acceleration leads to a possible specific start date: when the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert on Monday 16 July 1945.


Shocking...
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2015
Among other things, the title "Earth System' is inaccurate, since it deals only with the region from the ground to the top of the atmosphere, not the entire globe, itself. There may be things under the surface affecting what is happening on the surface.
But, this bears out the warnings I have been giving about chemtrails. The condition of the biosphere is strongly affected by the atmosphere and the atmosphere has been affected by chemtrails. I have pointed out that they began in 1950 and saturated the air in 1997. 1950 is given as the beginning of the "Great Acceleration", 1997 was the beginning of the staccato of abnormal manifestations associated with climate change!
When a "scientists" studiously and viciously insists on ignoring a subject, it says a lot more than if they study it!
alchemist from bristol
5 / 5 (5) Jan 26, 2015
Switching to renewable, sustainable energy will stimulate the economy, create jobs, save money and clean up the environment. "Ask the majority of climate scientists: Carbon pollution from dirty energy is the main cause of global warming." http://clmtr.lt/c/S3c0cd0cMJ
Supermastitis
5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2015
Really interesting piece - I also found the original Steffen article "The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration" free to access here:
anr.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/08/2053019614564785.full.pdf+html
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2015
richard_f_cronin - why do we always have to immediately resort to false choices? How is studying the impact that 7 billion humans are having on the planet - suggesting that we should revert to a hunter gatherer society? Surely it is smart to see if we are over fishing our oceans - to see if we are truly in danger of collapsing the food web? Do you not support the clean air legislation around the world that is trying to keep carcinogens, and other pollutants out of our lungs?

Malthusian predictions are the product of a limited imagination...
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2015
After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system


Hmm, I wonder if that has anything to do with going away from the gold standard and the subsequent end of WWII?

choosing the beginning of the Great Acceleration leads to a possible specific start date: when the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert on Monday 16 July 1945.


Shocking...

Or maybe July 3, 1947...:-)
Scroofinator
1 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2015
Or maybe July 3, 1947...:-)


Haha, I'm not saying it's aliens.... but it's aliens.

Honestly wouldn't surprise me if some ETs came after detecting our nuclear capabilities and helped our tech evolve.
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2015
Honestly wouldn't surprise me if some ETs came after detecting our nuclear capabilities and helped our tech evolve.

Wasn't nuclear stuff. Was Tesla's scalar waves. Just took 'em 40 or so years to get here after that....
Lag time in everything...
Scroofinator
1 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2015
Wasn't nuclear stuff. Was Tesla's scalar waves.

I gotcha, although I'm not too clear on what you're talking about here. You talking of the "death ray".
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2015
Wasn't nuclear stuff. Was Tesla's scalar waves.

I gotcha, although I'm not too clear on what you're talking about here. You talking of the "death ray".

No... Broadcast electricity attempt. Caused a ripple in continuum...
Or maybe they've just been here for the duration til we're "up to speed"...:-)

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