New Study Reveals Just How Much Humans Have Altered England's Landscape

©. Colin Waters / University of Leicester

Humans have so greatly impacted the landscape that some scientists believe we are now living in a new epoch.

It's no secret that humans have dramatically impacted the earth. The immense changes to the planet’s geology and ecosystems as a result of industrialization and globalization has even led some scientists to argue that humans are now living in a new epoch dubbed the Anthropocene. Nobel Laureate Paul J. Crutzen first popularized the concept in 2000, later describing the Anthropocene in an article in the journal Nature:

Considering... [the] major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch. The impacts of current human activities will continue over long periods. According to a study by Berger and Loutre, because of the anthropogenic emissions of CO2, climate may depart significantly from natural behaviour over the next 50,000 years. To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century... because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases," in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt's invention of the steam engine in 1784. About at that time, biotic assemblages in most lakes began to show large changes.
Since 2000, the concept of the Anthropocene has become increasingly popular within the scientific community, and now, new research has revealed that humans may have an even bigger impact on geological processes than originally thought. A study conducted by geologists from the University of Leicester and zoologist David Aldridge of Cambridge University has revealed the irreversible effects of industrialization on England’s landscape, reinforcing the idea of the

"We are realising that the Anthropocene is a phenomenon on a massive scale -- it is the transformation of our planet by human impact, in ways that have no precedent in the 4.54 billion years of Earth history. Our paper explores how these changes appear when seen locally, on a more modest scale, amid the familiar landscapes of England,” explained Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, one of the authors of the study.

The researchers found that much of the English landscape has been coated with fly ash particles, residue from the smoke emitted by factories. Industrialization has also led to the acidification of England’s water systems, altering the types of algae found in lakes and ponds. Many river systems such as the Thames have also become infested with invasive species like the Asian clam and the zebra mussel, reducing the biodiversity of these systems.

The study also revealed shifts in the chemistry of English soil. Soils and sediments in England now contain higher levels of metals like copper, lead, and cadmium than they did hundreds of years ago. Other pollutants like plastic debris, plutonium, and residue from pesticides are now prevalent in English soils. Furthermore, metro systems, coal mines, and boreholes have completely altered the subterranean landscape of England by creating artificial holes and caverns in the subsurface that remain even when mines are abandoned.

"These changes taken together are now virtually omnipresent as the mark of the English Anthropocene,” explained Professor Mark Williams, another author of the study. “They are only a small part of the Anthropocene changes that have taken place globally. But, to see them on one's own doorstep brings home the sheer scale of these planetary changes -- and the realisation that geological change does not recognise national boundaries."