CSULB’s Prof. Stan Finney Oversees Debate For a New Geological Age
2011-07-28 · By Editor
Have human activities so impacted the Earth that their actions deserve a new official geologic time segment called Anthropocene?
It’s a question facing geologists around the globe and one of particular importance to Stanley Finney, chair of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). Finney, a professor and past chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), is responsible for overseeing discussions of this proposal as well as the commission’s continuing work in identifying the boundaries of other geologic time periods.
Finney likens the role of ICS to historians trying to answer the question, “When was the beginning of the Renaissance?” When the Geologic Time Scale was developed in the 19th century, there were no firm definitions of boundaries to its units and, for some time intervals, different sets of units were established for different continents, he said. “So, the International Commission on Stratigraphy was set up in the late 1970s to agree upon a single set of standard global units for the time scale and to define their precise boundaries based on the rock records formed over Earth’s history and signals within them—typically fossils—and say, ‘This level in the rocks represents the passage of time from one named interval to another. We can put our finger on a spot in the rocks and say, ‘This is the beginning of Jurassic or Holocene,’ and so forth.”
The ICS organizes the Geologic Time Scale that is composed of a hierarchy of units from eons, to eras, periods, epochs and finally the smallest segments, ages.
After Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, began using the word Anthropocene with respect to human activity, the concept has gained worldwide scientific and media attention, including a feature story in National Geographic in March and a cover story in The Economist on May 28.
“A small group in the geologic community is pushing this, but I have to set the procedure,” Finney explained. “The people who are promoting it are giving all the reasons for it, but my concern is that they critically look at it. Is it really geologic time or human time? I don’t want it to come to the level of the full commission and find that the working group and subcommission haven’t asked the critical questions.”
Because their decisions will set a global standard, the ICS needs to be convinced that the case for adding Anthropocene is solid. They’ll examine evidence of changes in the rock record of fossils, chemistry, composition, magnetism, layering and other factors, and they will deliberate on various times on which it should be begin and the changes in Earth systems and/or the rock record on which its beginning will be defined.
Meanwhile, Finney has other ICS duties. One of the most pleasurable is when the commission holds a Golden Spike ceremony to officially mark a location called a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) representing the boundary between two time ages. Since the 1970s, more than 60 GSSP sites have been identified around the globe. He’ll be in the Austrian Alps near Innsbruck on Aug. 20 to help pound in the spike representing the beginning of the Jurassic Period at an event including government officials, geologists and the public. Spike locations are marked with plaques and often include public information signs describing the significance of the site.