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Episodes 2023; 46(2): 229-238

Published online June 1, 2023


Copyright © International Union of Geological Sciences.

The Anthropocene is a prospective epoch/series, not a geological event

Martin J. Head1*, Jan A. Zalasiewicz2, Colin N. Waters2, Simon D. Turner3, Mark Williams2, Anthony D. Barnosky4, Will Steffen5, Michael Wagreich6, Peter K. Haff 7, Jaia Syvitski8, Reinhold Leinfelder9, Francine M.G. McCarthy1, Neil L. Rose3, Scott L. Wing10, Zhisheng An11, Alejandro Cearreta12, Andrew B. Cundy13, Ian J. Fairchild14, Yongming Han11, Juliana A. Ivar do Sul15, Catherine Jeandel16, J.R. McNeill17, Colin P. Summerhayes18

1 Department of Earth Sciences, Brock University, 1812 Sir Isaac Brock Way, St. Catharines, Ontario L2S 3A1, Canada
2 School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK
3 Environmental Change Research Centre, Department of Geography, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK
4 Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
5 Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia
6 Department of Geology, University of Vienna, A-1090 Vienna, Austria
7 Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, 9 Circuit Drive, Box 90238, Durham, NC 27708, USA
8 INSTAAR, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
9 Department of Geological Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, Malteserstr. 74-100/D, 12249 Berlin, Germany
10 Department of Paleobiology, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
11State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xi’an 710061, China
12 Departamento de Geología, Facultad de Ciencia y Tecnología, Universidad del País Vasco UPV/EHU, Apartado 644, 48080 Bilbao, Spain
13 Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK
14 School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
15 Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemüende (IOW), Rostock, Germany
16 LEGOS, Université de Toulouse, CNES, CNRS, IRD, UPS, 14 avenue Édouard Belin, 31400 Toulouse, France
17 Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA
18 Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Lensfield Road, Cambridge CB2 1ER, UK

Correspondence to:*E-mail: mjhead@brocku.ca

Received: January 11, 2022; Revised: July 11, 2022; Accepted: July 11, 2022

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


The Anthropocene defined as an epoch/series within the Geological Time Scale, and with an isochronous inception in the mid-20th century, would both utilize the rich array of stratigraphic signals associated with the Great Acceleration and align with Earth System science analysis from where the term Anthropocene originated. It would be stratigraphically robust and reflect the reality that our planet has far exceeded the range of natural variability for the Holocene Epoch/Series which it would terminate. An alternative, recently advanced, time-transgressive ‘geological event’ definition would decouple the Anthropocene from its stratigraphic characterisation and association with a major planetary perturbation. We find this proposed anthropogenic ‘event’ to be primarily an interdisciplinary concept in which historical, cultural and social processes and their global environmental impacts are all flexibly interpreted within a multi-scalar framework. It is very different from a stratigraphic-methods-based Anthropocene epoch/series designation, but as an anthropogenic phenomenon, if separately defined and differently named, might be usefully complementary to it.