Document Type

Poster

Publication Date

12-2012

Journal / Book Title

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, December 2012, San Francisco, CA

Abstract

Thousands and even millions of years from now, widespread anthropogenic contaminants in sediments would likely persist, incorporated into the geological record. They would inadvertently preserve evidence of our present era (informally designated as the Anthropocene Epoch) characterized by large human populations engaged in intensive industrial and agricultural activities.

Hypothetical geologists in the distant future would likely find unusually high concentrations of a wide variety of contaminants at stratigraphic levels corresponding to our present time, analogous to the iridium anomaly marking the bolide impact event at the close of the Cretaceous Period. These would include both organic and inorganic substances, such as industrially-derived heavy metals (e.g., Hg, Pb, Cr, Zn) and hydrocarbons, both petrogenic (derived directly from petroleum) and pyrogenic (combustion products). While there are natural sources for these materials, such as volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and oil seeps, their co-occurrence would provide a signature characteristic of human activity. Diagnostic assemblages of organic compounds would carry an anthropogenic imprint. The distribution of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in a sediment sample could distinguish between natural and human sources. Stable isotopic signatures would provide additional evidence.

Concentrations of contaminants in the sedimentary record would increase exponentially with increasing proximity to urban source areas, where at present billions of people are collectively consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels and generating large amounts of waste. Aolian and marine transport prior to deposition has been seen at present to globally redistribute detectable amounts of contaminants including Hg and PAHs, even at great distances from principal source areas. For organic contaminants, deposition in an anoxic sedimentary environment could insure their preservation, increasing the likelihood of their inclusion in the long-term stratigraphic record, establishing markers of the Anthropocene Epoch for millions of years to come.

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