Earth's 'technosphere' now weighs 30 trillion tons, research finds

November 30, 2016
Earth and cling film. Credit: University of Leicester

"The technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly" – Professor Mark Williams, University of Leicester

An international team led by University of Leicester geologists has made the first estimate of the sheer size of the physical structure of the planet's technosphere – suggesting that its mass approximates to an enormous 30 trillion tons.

The technosphere is comprised of all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive on the planet – from houses, factories and farms to computer systems, smartphones and CDs, to the waste in landfills and spoil heaps.

In a new paper published in the journal the Anthropocene Review, Professors Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Colin Waters from the University of Leicester Department of Geology led an international team suggesting that the bulk of the planet's technosphere is staggering in scale, with some 30 trillion tons representing a mass of more than 50 kilos for every square metre of the Earth's surface.

Professor Zalasiewicz explained: "The technosphere is the brainchild of the USA scientist Peter Haff – also one of the co-authors of this paper. It is all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive, in very large numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste.

"Humans and organisations form part of it, too – although we are not always as much in control as we think we are, as the technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows – and humans have to help keep it going to survive."

The Anthropocene concept – a proposed epoch highlighting the impact humans have made to the planet - has provided an understanding that humans have greatly changed the Earth.

Professor Williams said: "The technosphere can be said to have budded off the biosphere and arguably is now at least partly parasitic on it. At its current scale the technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly.

"Compared with the biosphere, though, it is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show. This might be a barrier to its further success – or halt it altogether."

The researchers believe the technosphere is some measure of the extent to which we have reshaped our planet.

"There is more to the technosphere than just its mass," observes Professor Waters. "It has enabled the production of an enormous array of material objects, from simple tools and coins, to ballpoint pens, books and CDs, to the most sophisticated computers and smartphones. Many of these, if entombed in strata, can be preserved into the distant geological future as 'technofossils' that will help characterize and date the Anthropocene."

If technofossils were to be classified as palaeontologists classify normal fossils - based on their shape, form and texture – the study suggests that the number of individual types of 'technofossil' now on the planet likely reaches a billion or more – thus far outnumbering the numbers of biotic species now living.

The research suggests the technosphere is another measure of the extraordinary human-driven changes that are affecting the Earth.

Professor Zalasiewicz added: "The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet."

Explore further: Scientists put mankind's technological impact on the planet to the test

More information: J. Zalasiewicz et al. Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective, The Anthropocene Review (2016). DOI: 10.1177/2053019616677743

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11 comments

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dirk_bruere
4 / 5 (5) Nov 30, 2016
Within 100 years most of the technosphere will be computing substrate, whereas now it is mostly inanimate
tesschris
Nov 30, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2016
We don't know for sure. Maybe there was a time when every household had three antikytherae and some bully rounded them all up and had a 'book burning' which turned the metals into bronze to build cannons. That sort of thing happened a lot. It happened to Leonardo, who had major bronze casting projects stalled for years because of it. Did they count all those massive building stones from ancient eras not recognized by stubborn right wing archeologists, and probably most of which are hidden deep beneath the undergrowth of natural processes? How about those giant earth moving projects in China, which people used to think were natural formations because they dwarf the pyramids. There are hundreds of them in China, they're finding out, I mean, they have to count shovelfuls of dirt, don't they? It might be a lot more, or not. Knowing doesn't change anything, but this got published.
PhyOrgSux
1.7 / 5 (3) Nov 30, 2016
Pretty uneducated choice of words by these professors Williams and Zalasiewicz, calling the ongoing development "evolution". They should know that that word implies changes brought solely by naturally existing mindless processes; no such processes are making modifications on the devices within our "technosphere" (with the exception that if you leave the devices on their own, they will eventually deteriorate to nothing).

Any movement to a "higher technology" by the "technosphere" is solely due to human ingenuity, and that process therefore does not represent "evolution".
RealScience
5 / 5 (4) Dec 01, 2016
The medium consumption of concrete in the world is one tonne by person by year and there was ten billions of births between 1900 and 2000 - the total amount of concrete produced is therefore one trillion of tons max.


Concrete is indeed the bulk of human-made material, but they are counting human-displaced materials as well. Add a few trillion tons for water in reservoirs. But to get to 30 trillion, I have to count a few tens of trillions of tones of dirt and gravel moved (plowing a field, for example. moves several hundred kg per square meter, which adds up fast).
Peon
2.5 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2016
"Technosphere," huh? I like the term, only because it emphasizes the need for humanity in general to become more technical in everything they do. Unfortunately, this might require higher educational standards, and falling short of instituting a Technocratical government seems inevitable.
promytius1
1 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2016
So part of the Earth is called something; it stills weighs the same...
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2016
Instead of speculating what the consider as technosphere you can just go and read the article (it's linked at the bottom and free to access)
Table 1 gives a full description of how they come up with the 30tn tonnes figure
RealScience
5 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2016
Thanks, AA!
I had not seen that the PDF was available free - in reading I see several things that I had missed, but also a few numbers that I am skeptical of.

Using land for crops significantly alters more than the top 15 cm of soil, so I think that they are low by a factor of 2x (recent hoeing with hand tools) or 3x (modern deep plowing or generations of traditional).
But I lumped pasture in with cropland, and their much lighter figure of 10 cm for pasture actually looks about right...

For 'rural housing', 4.2 x 10^12 m2 is ~1000 m2 per rural inhabitant, and poor rural folk do NOT have houses that alter 1000 m3 per person. That's off by roughly a factor of 100, so even if one assumes that every rural person who has ever lived alters a modern amount, with no re-use, that figure is still way too high!

- continued -
RealScience
5 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2016
- continued -

For urban areas, they list 1.6 meters as the average alteration depth for London, and London is pretty old for a city when averaged over the current size of urban areas,and is also first-world. Therefore using 2 meters for the average for all urban areas seems high to me (but then I have much less expertise in urban areas so I can't be sure).

There is also the question of where one draws the line - does one include the trillions of extra tonnes of ice melted from glaciers and from Greenland? Or, taken to the extreme, does one include that far bigger mass of ocean water whose acidity has been increased by the excess CO2 we have produced?

Overall, though, it is a good article that gets people thinking, and it includes a nice discussion on where to draw the line.

SURFIN85
not rated yet Dec 07, 2016
"...the technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows – and humans have to help keep it going to survive."

Yes, so true.

We work for the economy, not the other way around. We think it produces all this stuff for us- nice system! Nope. It uses us to its own ends. Like tools we are.

Look at us, slaving away to keep IT alive. Not us. Frightening our capacity for self-delusion.

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