Arxiu d'etiquetes: carbon-14

The humans have done it again: the Anthropocene, another shameful achievement for mankind

Science books have to be modified again. Joining other famous geological epochs of the Cambrian, Jurassic or Pleistocene another one must be added from now: the Anthropocene. On August 2016 a group of experts confirmed what everyone suspected: mankind have been so interventionist in terrestrial processes that the natural cycle have changed irretrievably. We have already suffering the consequences, and the human footprint on our planet will be present until after our demise

INTRODUCTION

The history of the modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, was not easy in the beginning. It is believed that we appeared on the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago in Africa. In those days humans were already good hunters, but also good preys, and although the species was thriving and spreading across the planet, this was done slowly and always influenced by severe climate changes. It took 100,000 years to leave Africa and anothers 80,000 to reach America. During all that time and until almost the present day, humans being was at the mercy of the Earth and its whims, which decided at will the fate of our ancestors. However, the Ice Age ended, the Holocene began and thereby unprecedented technological advancement. The industrial revolution definitely transformed humans and the way they interact with the world, which suffered the devastating consequences of an ambitious and unaware species about their enormous global influence.

mamut
Humans have been nomadic most of their existence, with a strong dependence on environmental conditions that conditioned their prey. With the agriculture and lifestock the first villages were created, leading to the modern style. Source: Return of Kings.

WHAT IS A GEOLOGICAL TIME AND HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO ENTER AND LEAVE IT?

At first glance, it may seem a mere syntactical question or a whim of geologists. However, designate a geological time is important when defining long periods of time sharing similar environmental conditions. Normally, a geological period usually lasts no less than 2 million years, and the fossil record is used to find out a major discontinuity in the typical pattern of the biota of that actual period. Therefore, an epoch tend to finish when an abrupt climate change occur (the Pleistocene ends with the last of the great glaciations), leading to changes in the biota (the meteorite that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs caused the end of the Cretaceous period). However, these abrupt changes must be occur globally and in a short space of time to really be considered as a different geological epoch.

geological-time-scale
Earth is divided into periods whichare divided into geological epochs. These periods are marked by relatively stable and / or with a characteristic biota. These epochs are usually finished by events that involve drastic changes for living organisms on a global scale. Source: philipmarshall.net.

THE ANTHROPOCENE

The term is not new (it was used for the first time in the mid XIX century during the industrial revolution) but regained importance in early 2000, thanks to Paul Crutzen. This chemist, together with other colleagues, discovered the compounds that were destroying the ozone layer, which makes him to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In his speech, he had special interest in stressing that the Holocene “was over forever” to make way for the Anthropocene, the age of humans. His article in Nature about the Anthropocene was a reference for many scientists working on projects about environmental problems in the Anthropocene epoche. On August 29, 2016, the expert group of the Anthropocene voted at the International Geological Congress (IGC) to formally establish the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch.

Grinding Shop
The industrial revolution changed the course of Earth forever. Vast amounts of fossil fuels were burned and their products emitted into the atmosphere. The production system took a turn, giving priority to production and thereby to make unprecedented use of the planet’s resources. In the photo, British workers in a factory of agricultural products in 1928. Source: Daily mail.

BUT, WHY ARE WE IN THE ANTHROPOCENE?

As we mentioned before, to change the geological epoch it has to be evident that environmental conditions are changing on a global scale. And that is what is happening since the early 50s of the last century, date in which researchers have officially marked the beginning of the Anthropocene. In this Science article, researchers from around the world gathered geological evidence showing with certainty that mankind has changed the planet severely and it should already talk about another geological era. The researchers also pointed to the products of the many atomic tests of the 50s as the starting point of the Anthropocene.

mushroom-cloud-of-first-hydrogen-bomb-test
The nuclear tests of the 50s, like this one in which the first hydrogen bomb (Ivy Mike) was tested, caused the release of large amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. These particles were settled and that has allowed researchers to have evidence in order to demonstrate the impact of human actions on a global scale. Source: CBC.

EVIDENCE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, more than two centuries ago, numerous anthropogenic deposits have been accumulated in the earth’s crust, from new minerals and rocks to aluminum, cement and petroleum products such as plastics. Just after these lines, we show the main evidence put forward by researchers to justify the change of epoch:

High levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), plastics, fertilizers and pesticides in sediments. The burning of oil, coal and other wood products are the source of large amounts of PAHs in the atmosphere, that they just finally end settling in the earth’s crust and living things.Referring to fertilizers, little abundant nutrients in the soil such as nitrogen and phosphorous have doubled in the last century due to the increasing number of crops, many of which following the intensive model to maximize production. Moreover, plastics are already present worldwide. Its high resistance to degradation prevents natural recycling, which causes large quantities to deposit and, especially, to end in the sea, where there are authentic plastic islands, as the Great Pacific garbage patch .

plastics
Plastic is the most widely-product made from oil on Earth. Its impact on the environment is one of the most serious at present, and  global sedimentation leaves traces of our presence until thousands of years after our disappearance. Source: The Guardian.

Radioactive elements of nuclear tests. The detonation of the atomic bomb called Trinity in 1945 in New Mexico (USA), was followed by a long list of other nuclear tests during the Cold War. As a result, large amounts of carbon-14 and plutonium-239, among other molecules, were released into the atmosphere and sedimented years later in many parts of the globe, constituting a proof of the great human impact on Earth.

sediment
This core, extracted by the geologists that have determined that we are in a new era, shows the accumulation of human origin material in the sediments of a lake in Greenland. In it was found pesticides, radioactive nitrogen, heavy metals, increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases and plastics. Source: Science.

High concentrations of CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere. From 1850 and especially in the following decades, the levels of these gases in the atmosphere broke with the typical pattern of the Holocene, getting itself to achieve, in our century, 400 ppm (parts per million) of CO2, an increase of more of 150 points from the pre-industrial situation. This increase in atmospheric CO2 has a direct impact on the temperature of the Earth. It is believed that the global temperature has increased by around 1 ° C since 1900, and will increase between 1.5 and 3.5 ° C by the year 2100.

aumento-co2
This chart shows the unprecedented increase in CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Although CO2 is the best known gas and which has the greatest impact on a large scale, the other two gases have greater power to limit heat dissipation into space. The increase of these gases is closely related to the increase of global temperature. Source: CSIRO.

The increase of the ratio of extinction of living organisms in all parts of the world as a result of human activities. Since 1500 the extinction of species by humans has increased, but is from the XIX century onwards when the extinctions are present in the entire planet. The distribution of species has been disrupted due to human activities such as agriculture and deforestation and the introduction of invasive species, causing changes in the habits of native species and often come to displace and even to extinguish. This unprecedented high extinction ratio is considered by many people as an unmistakable symbol that we are in front of the sixth mass extinction on Earth.

ratio-extincion
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the rate of extinction of vertebrates is 100 times greater than in the past. At this rate, it is estimated that in the following centuries the number of extinct species will reach 75% of the existing ones. The dotted black line in this graph shows the rate of pre-industrialization extinction, while others refer to the cumulative percentage of extinct species since 1500. Source: Science.

FUTURE

Whatever the fate of humanity and future actions undertaken to mitigate climate change, what is clear is that the human footprint will remain indelible in the earth’s surface for millions of years, similar to what occurred after the Permian or Cretaceous mass extincion. The strata will show the follies and excesses carried out by us, perhaps as a warning for the following species that dares to relieve humanity of its status as the dominant species.

REFERENCES

Ricard-anglès

 

Knowing fossils and their age

In All You Need Is Biology we often make reference to fossils to explain the past of living beings. But what is exactly a fossil and how is it formed? Which is the utility of fossils? Have you ever wondered how science knows the age of a fossil? Read on to find out!

WHAT IS A FOSSIL?

If you think of a fossil, surely the first thing that comes to your mind is a dinosaur bone or a petrified shell that you found in the forest, but a fossil is much more. Fossils are remnants (complete or partial) of  living beings that have lived in the past (thousands, millions of years) or traces of their activity that are preserved generally in sedimentary rocks. So, there are different types of fossils:

  • Petrified and permineralized fossils: are those corresponding to the classical definition of fossil in which organic or hollow parts are replaced with minerals (see next section). Its formation can leave internal or external molds in which the original material may disappear.

    cangrejo herradura, fósil, cosmocaixa, mireia querol rovira, horseshoe crab
    Petrified fossil of horseshoe crab and its footsteps. CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira
  • Ichnofossils (trace fossils): traces of the activity of a living being that are recorded in the rock and give information about the behavior of the species. They may be changes in the environment (nests and other structures), traces (footprints), stools (coprolites -excrements-, eggs …) and other traces such as scratches, bites…

    Cosmocaixa, huevos, dinosaurio, nido, mireia querol rovira
    Dinosaur eggs (nest). CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira

    coprolitos, cosmocaixa, excrementos fósiles, mireia querol rovira
    Coprolites, CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira
  • Amber: fossilized resin of more than 20 million years old. The intermediate state of amber is called copal (less than 20 million years) old. The resin, before becoming amber can trap insects, arachnids, pollen… in this case is considered a double fossil.

    Pieza de ámbar a la lupa con insectos en su interior. CosmoCaixa. Foto: Mireia Querol Rovira
    Piece of amber with insects inside, CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira
  • Chemical fossils: are fossil fuels like oil and coal, which are formed by the accumulation of organic matter at high pressures and temperatures along with the action of anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that don’t use oxygen for metabolism).
  • Subfossil: when the fossilization process is not completed the remains are known as subfossils. They don’t have more than 11,000 years old. This is the case of our recent ancestors (Chalcolithic).

    Ötzi a subfossil. It is Europe’s oldest natural mummy. He lived during the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and died 5300 years ago. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Living fossils: name given to today’s living organisms very similar to species extinct. The most famous case is the coelacanth, it was believed extinct for 65 million years until it was rediscovered in 1938, but there are other examples such as nautilus.

    ammonites, nautilus, cosmocaixa, fósil, mireia querol rovira
    Comparison between the shell of a current nautilus (left) with an ammonite of millions of years old (right). CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Rovira Querol
  • Pseudofossils: are rock formations that seem remains of living beings, but in reality they are formed by geological processes. The best known case is pyrolusite dendrites that seem plants. 

Infiltraciones de priolusita en piedra calcárea. CosmoCaixa. Foto: Mireia Querol
Pirolusita infiltrations in limestone. CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Querol

Obviously fossils became more common after the appearance of hard parts (shells, teeth, bones …), 543 million years ago (Cambrian Explosion). The fossil record prior to this period is very scarce. The oldes tknown fossils are stromatolites, rocks that still they exist today formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate because of the activity of photosynthetic bacteria.

The science of fossils is Paleontology.

stromatolite, estromatòli, estromatolito, mireia querol rovira, fossil, fósil
Stromatolite 2,800 million years old, Australian Museum. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira

HOW A FOSSIL IS FORMED?

The fossilization can occur in five ways:

  • Petrifaction: is the replacement of organic material by minerals from the remains of a living being buried. An exact copy of the body is obtained in stone. The first step of petrificationis  permineralizationthe pores of the body are filled with mineral but organic tissue is unchanged. It is the most common method of fossilized bones).
  • Gelling: the body becomes embedded in the ice and don’t suffer transformations .
  • Compression : the dead body is on a soft layer of soil, such as clay, and is covered by layers of sediment .
  • Inclusion : organisms trapped in amber, or petroleum .
  • Impression: organisms leave impressions in the mud and the trace is preserved until the clay hardens.

    Fossilization processes and resulting fossils. Unknown author

    UTILITY OF FOSSILS

  • Fossils give us information on how living things were in the past, resulting in evidence of the biological evolution and help to establish the lineages of living things today.
  • Allow analyzing of cyclical phenomena such as climate change, atmosphere-ocean dynamics and even orbital perturbations of the planets.
  • Those who are of a certain age can be use to date the rocks in where they are found (guide fossils).
  • They give information of geological processes such as the movement of the continents, the presence of ancient oceans, formation of mountains…
  • The chemical fossils are our main source of energy .
  • They give climate information from the past, for example, studying the growth of rings in fossilized trunks or deposition of organic matter in the glacial varves.

    mireia querol rovira, tronco fósil, xilópalo, AMNH
    Fossil trunks where growth rings are observed. American Museum of Natural History. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira

    DATING FOSSILS

    To determine the age of fossils there are indirect methods (relative dating) and direct (absolute dating). As there is no perfect method and accuracy decreases with age, the sites are often dated with more than one technique.

    RELATIVE DATING

    The fossils are dated according to the context in which they are found, if they are associated with other fossils (guide fossils) or objects of known age and it depends on the stratum they are found.

    In geology, stratums are different levels of rocks that are ordered by their depth: according to stratigraphy, the oldest ones are found at greater depths, while the modern ones are more superficial, as the sediments have not had much time to deposit on the substrate. Obviously if there are geological disturbances dating would be wrong if there were only this method.

    stratigraphic chart fossils
    Stratigraphic timescale. Picture: Ray Troll

    ABSOLUTE DATING

    This methods are more accurate and are based on the physical characteristics of matter.

    RADIOMETRIC DATING

    They are based on the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes in rocks and fossils. Isotopes are atoms of the same element but with different number of neutrons in their nuclei. Radioactive isotopes are unstable, so they are transformed into a more stable ones at a rate known to scientists emitting radiation. Comparing the amount of unstable isotopes to stable in a sample, scientits can estimate the time that has elapsed since the fossil or rock formed.

    Carbon 14 cycle. Unknown author
    Carbon-14 cycle. Unknown author
  • Radiocarbon (Carbon-14): in living organisms, the relationship between C12 and C14 is constant, but when they die, this relationship changes: the uptake of C14 stops and decay with a descomposing rate of 5730 years. Knowing the difference between C12 and C14 of the sample, we can date when the organism died. The maximum limit of this method are 60,000 years, therefore only applies to recent fossils.
  • Aluminum 26-Beryllium 10: it has the same application as the C14, but has a much greater decaying period, allowing  datings up to 10 datings millions of years, and even up to 15 million years.
  • Potassium-Argon (40K/40Ar): is used to date rocks and volcanic ash older than than 10,000 years old. This was the method used to date the Laetoli footprints, the first traces of bipedalism of our lineage left by Australopithecus afarensis.
  • Uranium Series (Uranium-Thorium): various techniques with uranium isotopes. They are sed in mineral deposits in caves (speleothems) and in calcium carbonate materials (such as corals).
  • Calcium 41: allows to date bones in a time interval from 50,000 to 1,000,000 years .

PALEOMAGNETIC DATING

The magnetic north pole has changed throughout the history of Earth and its geographical coordinates are known in different geological eras.

Some minerals have magnetic properties and are directed towards the north magnetic pole when in aqueous suspension, for example clays. But when laid on the ground, they are fixed to the position that the north magnetic pole was at the time. If we look at what coordinates are oriented such minerals at the site, we can associate it with a particular time.

Deposición de partículas magnéticas orientadas hacia el polo norte magnético. Fuente: Understanding Earth, Press and Seiver, W.H. Freeman and Co.
Deposition of magnetic particles oriented towards the magnetic north pole. Source: Understanding Earth, Press and Seiver, W.H. Freeman and Co.

This dating is used on clay remains and as the magnetic north pole has been several times in the same geographical coordinates, you get more than one date. Depending on the context of the site, you may discard some dates to reach a final dating.

THERMOLUMINESCENCE DATING AND  OPTICALLY STIMULATED LUMINESCENCE (OSL)

Certain minerals (quartz, feldspar, calcite …) accumulate in its crystal structure changes due to radioactive decay of the environment. These changes are cumulative, continuous and time dependent to radiation exposure. When subjected to external stimuli, mineral emits light due to these changes. This luminescence is weak and distinct as apply heat (TL), visible light (OSL) or infrared (IRSL).

Fluorite's thermoluminescence. Photo: Mauswiesel
Fluorite’s thermoluminescence. Photo: Mauswiesel

Can be dated samples that were protected from sunlight and heat to more than 500 ° C, otherwise the “clock” is reset as the energy naturally releases.

ELECTRON PARAMAGNETIC RESONANCE (ESR)

The ESR (electro spin resonance) involves irradiating the sample and measuring the energy absorbed by the sample depending on the amount of natural radiation which it has been subjected during its history. It is a complex method which you can get more information here.

REFERENCES