Scientists have identified a sudden explosion of mineral diversity on the surface of our planet that might not exist if it weren’t for humans. The human hand-print on the natural world has become evident in all too many ways in recent decades. The ever-changing climate, the decline of wildlife and also the loss of forests and other natural landscapes — all of these factors have led many scientists to conclude that we’re living in a new age they’ve dubbed the “Anthropocene,” in which the earth is dominated by human, instead of natural, influences.
The research team, which has Hazen and colleagues Marcus Origlieri and Robert Downs of the University of Arizona and Edward Grew of the University of Maine, published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.
The International Mineralogical Association (IMA) acknowledges more than 5,000 different mineral species. Each mineral should have a certain form of crystal structure, and it should be naturally occurring, forming on its own through geological processes. But the strict definition of a mineral may be growing a little hazier, Hazen said.
After an exhaustive look through the 5,000 minerals, the researchers concluded that 208 of them are the inadvertent results of human activities. Additionally , humans have created a large assortment of mineral-like crystals through deliberate chemical processes. But they’re not defined as true minerals because they didn’t arise “naturally.”
“This is a spike of mineral novelty that is so rapid – most of it in the last 200 years, compared to the 4.5bn year history of Earth. there is nothing like it in Earth’s history,” said Robert Hazen, co-author of the research from the Carnegie Institution for Science. “This is a blink of an eye, it is just a surge and of course we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
In addition, the study points out that many more “mineral-like” substances, from laser crystals to components of concrete, have been devised and produced by human hands. “Human ingenuity has led to a host of crystalline compounds that never before existed in the solar system, and perhaps in the universe,” the authors write.
Since the mid-1700s, very close to the industrial revolution – the diversity of minerals on Earth has exploded faster than ever before, the team noting the “blazing pace” that humans triggered over the past 250 years.
“To imagine 250 years relative to 2 billion years, that’s the difference between the blink of an eye … and one month,” Hazen says in a press statement.
“Simply put, we live in an era of unparalleled inorganic compound diversification. Indeed, if the Great Oxidation eons ago was a ‘punctuation event’ in Earth’s history, the rapid and extensive geological impact of the Anthropocene is an exclamation mark.”
The Anthropocene has yet to be officially recognized, but scientists have been arguing for years that human influence on the planet has been so dramatic. Perhaps more than anything, the paper’s findings speak to the power and long-lasting influence of human innovation. This effect has manifested in a variety of environmentally destructive ways over the past century from climate change, air and water pollution to sharp declines in plants and animals. But from a mineralogical perspective, there’s also evidence of the “boundless” nature of human creativity.