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8th December 2016

Earth’s ‘technosphere’ now weighs 30 trillion tons, research finds

Researchers have calculated the weight of Earth's technosphere as 30 trillion tons, a mass greater than 50 kilos for every square metre of the planet's surface.

 

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A team led by the University of Leicester has, for the first time, estimated the sheer size of the physical structure that forms our planet's "technosphere" – suggesting that its mass approximates to an enormous 30 trillion tons.

The technosphere is comprised of all the structures and objects that humans have created to keep them alive on the planet – from houses, factories and farms to computer systems, smartphones and CDs, to the waste in landfills and spoil heaps.

Professors Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Colin Waters from the University of Leicester Department of Geology led an international team suggesting that the bulk of our planet's technosphere is staggering in scale, with a mass greater than 50 kilos for every square metre of Earth's surface. This is supporting a human biomass around five orders of magnitude smaller.

Professor Zalasiewicz explained: "The technosphere is the brainchild of USA scientist Peter Haff – also one of the co-authors of this paper. It is all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive, in very large numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste.

"Humans and human organisations form part of it, too – although we are not always as much in control as we think we are, as the technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows – and humans have to help keep it going to survive."

 

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City lights of the United States. Credit: NASA

 

The Anthropocene – a proposed new geological epoch – highlights the impact humans have made and provides an understanding that we have greatly changed the Earth. In March 2015, a paper published in Nature suggested the year 1610 as the beginning of the Anthropocene or the "Age of Man", marking a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and the Earth system.

"The technosphere can be said to have budded off the biosphere and arguably is now at least partly parasitic on it," says Professor Williams. "At its current scale, the technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet, and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly. Compared with the biosphere, though, it is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show. This might be a barrier to its further success – or halt it altogether."

"There is more to the technosphere than just its mass," observes Professor Waters. "It has enabled the production of an enormous array of material objects, from simple tools and coins, to ballpoint pens, books and CDs, to the most sophisticated computers and smartphones. Many of these, if entombed in strata, can be preserved into the distant geological future as 'technofossils' that will help characterise and date the Anthropocene."

If technofossils were to be classified in the same way palaeontologists classify normal fossils – based on their shape, form and texture – the study suggests that the number of individual types of 'technofossil' now likely reaches a billion or more, far outnumbering the two million or so known biotic species that have been described and catalogued.

The research suggests that – like the Anthropocene – the technosphere is another measure of the extraordinary human-driven changes affecting Earth. Zalasiewicz adds: "The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and has already left a deep imprint on our planet."

The team's study is published by the journal The Anthropocene Review.

 

 

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