The Earth Shapers

By Keith Kloor | March 7, 2011 7:48 am

If you had to pick the human influences most responsible for altering the earth, what would they be? Half a century ago, this question was (dispassionately) addressed in a landmark symposium called, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.”

A 2005 retrospective review of the volume of interdiscplinary scholarship that emerged in 1956 notes that the syposium was “terrestrially oriented” and that  

some omissions seem glaring from our perspective in the twenty-first century. Except for a chapter about ocean fisheries and coastlines, there is no discussion of the oceans. There is a section on the atmosphere, but the chapters mostly examine changes in rural and metropolitan climates. There is no sense that people are capable of altering the planet’s climate as a whole. 

In this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert takes stock of the various dominant forces shaping the planet today (from agriculture to urbanization) and concludes:

Probably the most significant change, from a geologic perspective, is one that’s invisible to us””the change in the composition of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions are colorless, odorless, and in an immediate sense, harmless. But their warming effects could easily push global temperatures to levels that have not been seen for millions of years. Some plants and animals are already shifting their ranges toward the Poles, and those shifts will leave traces in the fossil record. Some species will not survive the warming at all. Meanwhile rising temperatures could eventually raise sea levels 20 feet or more.

Long after our cars, cities, and factories have turned to dust, the consequences of burning billions of tons’ worth of coal and oil are likely to be clearly discernible. As carbon dioxide warms the planet, it also seeps into the oceans and acidifies them.

Anybody want to speculate what kinds of National Geographic stories will be appearing  in 2050?

  • Tom Fuller

    Dams and mines.

  • Artifex

    The Energy Crisis,Peak Oil and Aquifer depletion

  • grypo

    Anybody want to speculate what kinds of National Geographic stories will be appearing  in 2050?

    “Minor flaw found in ‘Boomerang’ temperature chart: Does this mean the current global catastrophe isn’t unprecedented?”


    ” Previous Generations Found to be Genetically ‘Obtuse’ “

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    I have no doubt that 50 years from now some things will change.  It seems to be a regular kind of thing.

  • Bob Koss

    During the apocalyptic heat wave of 2042 most of the key personnel died from dehydration. After staying late at work to polish their article about The Wonders of Wind Power they were unfortunately caught in the elevator when the electricity went out due a sudden two week lull in the wind which caused the building to be kept closed. The magazine subsequently collapsed.

  • rustneversleeps

    In any kind of business-as-usual scenario, I suspect that Kolbert and the scientists she is referencing – such as Crutzen, Steffen, Zalasiwwicz, etc. – would  say that it would be the biogeochemical markers:
    The most plainly visible physical effects of this on the landscapes the growth of the world’s megacities, for instances may in some ways be the most transient. In such “terraforming”, humans have brought about a roughly order-of-magnitude increase in the long-term rate of erosion and sedimentation (8, 9). This is a remarkable, though perhaps short-lived, sedimentary signal. If construction stops or slows, for whatever reason, then natural geomorphologic processes will rapidly re-establish themselves, as shown by the fate of “lost” cities such as Angkor in Cambodia.
    Far more profound are the chemical and biological effects of global human activity.”

    It’s kinda hard to pick which ones, though! After all, of the 77 of the 92 naturally occurring elements for which we have good data for their mobilization through the earth system, 54 of those 77 are dominated by  anthropogenic flows (i.e. > 50% of the existing flow, which in many cases can means more than 100% of the natural flow), and a further 12/77 are perturbed by anthropogenic flows representing between 15% and 50% of the total.

    My guess is that the chemical and biological modifications of the oceans will be amongst the most striking markers. Boyce, et al (2010) “Global phytoplankton decline over the past century” is not encouraging…

  • harrywr2

    In 1980 National Geographic had a circulation of 30 million. It’s below 10 million now.(US Circulation is about 5 million)
    If it wasn’t for the waiting rooms of various professionals(Doctors,Lawyers, etc) I doubt they would have any circulation at all.

  • toto

    “Minor flaw found in “˜Boomerang’ temperature chart: Does this mean the current global catastrophe isn’t unprecedented?”

    Ok, that’s a pretty cool moniker. Did you coin it?

  • Eli Rabett

    Amazon gone

  • grypo

    I think I just did.  Unless it has seeped into my brain in another way.  But this is the futuristic one, not the current one.

  • Jack Hughes

    This is nonsense:

    “As carbon dioxide warms the planet, it also seeps into the oceans and acidifies them.”

    Is it in 2 places at the same time? (Clue: a given molecule is either in the atmosphere or the ocean)

  • S. Lan Smith

    rustneversleeps wrote: “My guess is that the chemical and biological modifications of the oceans will be amongst the most striking markers. Boyce, et al (2010) “Global phytoplankton decline over the past century“ is not encouraging”¦”
    The first sentence I quoted may be correct. The second certainly is correct, but not for the reason you think. Despite what I suspect were the good intentions of the authors, the study by Boyce et al. (Nature, 2010) had at least two serious flaws. One is noted in a comment posted by Mark D. Ohman on the Nature website, below the article.  At least one comment formally addressing this bias is already in press for Nature’s Communications Arising.
    Another problem is that Boyce et al. did not account for (nor even mention) the well-known and systematic changes in chlorophyll content as a function of light and nutrient environment (called “photoacclimation”). Kevin Flynn of the UK has published a paper stating explicitly that chlorophyll cannot be equated to phytoplankton biomass.  Under brighter conditions, phytoplankton produce less chlorophyll per unit biomass (whether measured per cell or per unit carbon). Therefore, a decrease in (near-surface) chlorophyll does not imply a decrease in living biomass (nor in their rate of carbon assimilation, as one can verify by looking at the decades of data from the HOT and BATS time-series).

    It is most discouraging, and downright unacceptable, that the editors of Nature and the reviewers allowed that study to be published as it was, without important caveats and with a faulty (biased) treatment of the data.
    All of us, including scientists, do make mistakes, and I do not mean this in any mean-spirited way.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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