Leicester researchers involved in hunt for golden spike that signalled new epoch

Geologists - including Professor Jan Zalasiewicz and Dr Colin Waters from the Department of Geology - are on the hunt for the 'golden spike' that would signify the moment humanity changed the planet forever and triggered the Anthropocene era.

The worldwide hunt for a 'line in the rock' that shows the beginning of a proposed new geological epoch - the Anthropocene, which is defined by humanity’s extraordinary impact on planet Earth - is expected to get underway in the next few weeks.

Later this month, an expert working group convened by Professor Zalasiewicz and set up to investigate whether these changes are so significant that the 11,500-year-old Holocene epoch is now at an end will present its latest findings to the 35th International Geological Congress (IGC) in South Africa.

The group then plans to search for what is known as a 'golden spike' – a physical point in the geological record that shows where one epoch changed to another - in order to officially formalise the Anthropocene epoch.

Dr Colin Waters, secretary of the Anthropocene Working Group who has recently been awarded an honorary Chair at the Department of Geology, said: “The key thing to us is the scale of the changes that have happened. It’s of comparable scale with what happened with the Holocene and the transition from the last ice age.”

Professor Zalasiewicz added: “There’s a majority of opinion on the working group to say the Anthropocene is real. However there is still a debate about when it started and some experts believe it is premature to formally declare a new epoch.

“The feeling is that it would be better, most geologists would be more comfortable, if there was a ‘golden spike’, a physical reference point in the strata. We’ll suggest that we begin the process of looking around the world for a set of sections that could be sediments in lake beds, peat bogs, glaciers...where there are a set of signals to show the beginning of the Anthropocene. And then we’ll choose one of these to propose that ‘this is the reference point, this marks the beginning of the Anthropocene’.”

The Working Group on the 'Anthropocene' (AWG), which includes Leicester geologists, will provide its summary of evidence and its provisional recommendations on a potential new geological time interval at the 35th International Geological Congress in South Africa between 27 August - 4 September. Read more about the findings they will be presenting here.