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Research shows human impact forms striking new pattern in Earths global energy flow

The impact humans have made on Earth in terms of how we produce and consume resources has formed a ‘striking new pattern’ in the planet’s global energy flow, according to research led by Professors Mark Williams and Jan Zalasiewicz from the Department of Geology.

Working with Dr Carys Bennett (Geology) and Dr Matt Edgeworth (Archaeology and Ancient History), the research suggests that the Earth is now characterised by a geologically unprecedented pattern of global energy flow that is pervasively influenced by humans - and which is necessary for maintaining the complexity of modern human societies.

While analysing the Anthropocene phenomenon - an epoch where humans dominate the Earth’s surface geology - the team identified that human patterns of production and consumption are a key factor characterising the epoch, and when measured against the billion-year old patterns of planet Earth, they form a striking new pattern.

Professor Zalasiewicz said: “Very big changes in our planet’s pattern of biological production and consumption do not happen very often. The appearance of photosynthesis was one, about two and a half billion years ago. Then, a little over half a billion years ago, animals like trilobites appeared, to add scavengers and predators into a food web of increasing complexity.

“Other major events have happened since, such as five major mass extinctions, but even measured against these events, human-driven changes to production and consumption are distinctly new.”

In 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group led by Professor Zalasiewicz will gather more evidence on the Anthropocene, which will help inform recommendations on whether this new time unit should be formalized and, if so, how it might be defined and characterized.

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