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A New Age For Earth? He Doubts It

Published: November 14, 2016

Geological Sciences’ Chair Stan Finney has his doubts about a new age for Earth.

Finney, a member of the university since 1986, served for the last eight years as chair of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the largest and oldest constituent scientific body in the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). He was elected Secretary-General of the IUGS while attending the recent International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.

At the Congress, the leader of a team of 35 scientists calling themselves the Working Group on the Anthropocene presented their findings on whether humans have left enough of a mark on the Earth to qualify as their own unit of geological time. In January, the group published a paper arguing that the Anthropocene is a “functionally and stratigraphically distinct” unit of geologic time.

The group won’t submit a formal proposal yet. To do so, it must gather multiple cores of sediment from around the planet and show that they contain a sharp transition in geochemical tracers that can be used to make time correlations between sediment in many parts of the world and in many different sedimentary environments. The positions of these in cores may serve as the basis for selecting one core as a standard reference with the boundary in the core marked by a “golden spike.” That level in the core would mark the base of the overlying sediment of the Anthropocene.

It is up to the ICS to make the final call and Finney is skeptical. Designating a new unit of geologic time is a big decision and the voting members of the ICS look at these things critically, he said. The primary objective of the ICS is to define global units of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart that, in turn, are the basis for the units of the International Geologic Time Scale to set global standards for the history of the Earth. Stratigraphy is the branch of geology concerned with the order of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.

“We interpret earth’s history through sedimentary rocks,” said Finney. “Stratigraphy is the classification of those sedimentary rocks.”

Finney’s doubts about the new age begin with the here-and-now nature of the Anthropocene research. “They offer economic data and trace the annual production of concrete, black carbon and aluminum, but whatever it is, it is not stratigraphy,” he said. “They don’t show a core from a lake or from ice where we can see radioisotopes appear. They have published papers but they are not showing the data.”

What is needed to convince Finney is a stratigraphic record. “They need to show true logs,” he said. “When they show samples from lake beds, we see changes in nitrogen values. That reflects the input of animal waste from pastures. But they don’t show a core to show how thick it is. Is it two feet? Is it 10 feet? Or is it a fraction of an inch?”

When the ICS defines a geological boundary by placing a golden spike in the rocks, they don’t do that until they have tested whether that spike provides reliable correlation.

“We don’t look at one core of one outcrop of sedimentary layers. We look at many,” Finney explained. “We look at different signals to make our evaluation of which signal to use. We are observing and recording on a human time scale. Say lava flows out of a volcano in Hawaii and builds up huge amounts of rock year after year. This is not the Anthropocene Age. It is a lava flow from May 22, 2013. That is how we refer to earthquakes and volcanic explosions. We label them by the year in which they occur.”

Finney pointed to a visit he paid this year to Columbia where he studied a volcanic mud flow called a Lehar that buried a city of 20,000.

“You can see the Lehar in the road cut,” he said. “It is 10 feet thick and covers a huge area. Below that is the buried road and below that is another Lehar that occurred in 1845. I do not date the lower Lehar from the Holocene and the upper from the Anthropocene. I will call one the 1845 Lehar and the other one the 1985 Lehar. That is not using the geological time scale. It has been pointed out but the idea’s supporters decline to address it.”

Finney received his bachelor’s and master’s from UC Riverside and his Ph.D. from Ohio State, carried out post-doctoral work at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada and the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. He held tenure track positions in Geology at Northern Arizona University and Oklahoma State University before arriving at CSULB. Here, he served as department chair of Geological Sciences for 21 years, held a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Natural Sciences at University of Salzburg, Austria in 2002 and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Charles University in Prague, the Czech Republic, in 2010.

One of the biggest obstacles to convincing the ICS is the Working Group’s focus on the youngest part of the stratigraphic record. “They don’t understand stratigraphy and they don’t read the international stratigraphic guide or the history of the nature of units,” he summarized. “It is all direct human observation. They are not looking at strata to interpret what has occurred and using signals in the rocks to interpret time relationships. They are not using stratigraphy which gives us the history of the Earth.”

Finney believes the issue of a new geological age will be around for a while.

“I know the voting members of the ICS who are the chairs of all the sub-commissions and they are very critical,” he said. “Even if the stratigraphic records are there, it will take considerable time to study and to document them, and in most, the Anthropocene will be no more than a couple of centimeters of unconsolidated mud. In the eight years since the working group formed, they have published 15-20 papers and generated extensive publicity in scientific and pubic media, but they have yet to do the basic work that is needed to produce a formal proposal to the Commission on Stratigraphy. I keep saying, ‘Show us the stratigraphic record.’ ICS is the Commission on STRATIGRAPHY; its purpose to formalize STRATIGRAPHIC UNITS (intervals of sedimentary rocks or sediment, that then serve as the basis of the Geologic Time Scale.”