The Anthropocene

5_1_Collage2.jpgClimate change is happening everywhere. It not only affects the natural systems of our planet, but also has big impacts on communities around the globe, from small towns to big cities. While natural cycles of climate change have occurred in the past over long geological time scales, the climate change we see today is greatly influenced by human activities and is happening very fast. Our planet is now in a new geological time period called the Anthropocene, which means that all of Earth's systems, including the atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and geosphere, are being greatly altered by humans.

The word anthropocene comes from the root “anthropo” meaning human, and “cene” the geologic time referring to epoch. This new geological time follows the Holocene, an interglacial period of gradual warming that started about 12,000 years ago following the end of the Pleistocene, the last major ice age. The Anthropocene is characterized by exponential population growth, big transformations in industry and land use, and the rise of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel emissions.

The four major natural elements- earth, water, air and fire, have been important to our planet’s history, climate and human civilization. We humans are now a major force of nature – or the fifth element that is now changing our global climate. In the Anthropocene, big changes of the four basic elements directly impact human lives, including wildfires, hurricanes, sea level rise, and changes in the air we breathe. Climate change also includes extreme events that can affect our safety, health, food and water.  Climate change doesn’t differentiate between who may be affected— all of us are impacted. Our biggest global challenge today is to find a more balanced relationship with nature to secure a healthy planet for all of us and for future generations.


 Climate extremes

As the climate continues to change, it directly impacts the energy balance of the planet and the day-to-day weather as well. Remember that weather is the local variation of the atmosphere that includes temperature, clouds, precipitation, wind, and other elements such as humidity levels. Climate is the average of weather patterns in a given region over time. Climate records also include the occurrence of extreme weather events, such as floods, heat waves, and drought. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather is one major difference between different climates across the globe. We begin to question when we see more frequent, severe, or atypical extreme events, such as year after year of multiple hurricanes or excessively long droughts. This is called a climate anomaly — meaning that something in the climate is occurring that is different than usual. In some geographic areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, it is expected to be very dry and hot, but if the same extreme heat occurred in northern Europe over multiple days, then we would certainly become alarmed about the change in climate.

Scientists gather climate data and build models to predict the ways in which weather, climate and extreme events may change. The scientific studies from experts around the world are compiled and reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC releases reports that summarize the outlook for our planet given current climate data. The IPCC says that human activities are responsible for global warming and that we can expect an increase in the severity of extreme events with the continued rise in global temperature. Take a look at this video to see how global temperatures have increased since 1880. The map shows some of the major climate anomalies and extreme events that occurred around the world in 2018.


The IPCC finds that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and intensity. A heat wave is a long period of excessively hot weather. People can suffer from heatstroke or get very dehydrated if they spend time outside during a heat wave. Heat waves also result in an increase in electricity use because many people turn on their air conditioning to cool their homes and businesses. Power outages have occurred in parts of California, Texas, and Australia when too many people were running their air conditioning. These extreme temperatures also damage crops and dry up local water sources.


In some places, very cold events are occurring that are very unexpected. Many places in the midwest and the eastern United States have experienced the impacts of the polar vortex. This occurs when cold air from the North Pole extends to lower latitudes for days to weeks, bringing freezing temperatures. When the air patterns meander like this, then warmer temperatures can occur farther north, like in Alaska and northern Canada. Basically, weather patterns are getting out of sync, and the extreme polar vortex event is a good example of this.


 Extreme storms

Climate change can cause unexpected results. These may not be obvious until an increase in severe storms occurs; weather patterns are altered, and coastal flooding increases. The IPCC reported an increase in the frequency of extreme events since 1950, and we can expect more to occur. This graph of weather-related disasters from 1980 to 2012 shows that natural disasters are on the rise all over the globe. You’ll also see that these disasters come at a very high cost. The other graph shows a billion dollars worth of damage from extreme events in 2013 alone in the United States.

Hurricane Alert!

Hurricanes are one example of extreme weather that has a major impact – and one that can be pretty damaging. Hurricanes are big and powerful windstorms. They form only in very warm and wet conditions, typically over the ocean in tropical areas. Hurricanes can grow to be hundreds of miles wide, and the winds are so strong that if they hit land they may destroy anything in their path. The wind speed determines how potentially dangerous a storm is, and it is rated by the Saffir-Simpson Scale, which goes from 1 to 5. Category 5 means the winds are over 157 miles per hour! With climate change, an IPCC special report on extreme events states that the average wind speed of hurricanes will likely increase in some areas– that’s not very good news for people in a hurricane's path. When a hurricane moves over land, it loses some of its moisture and wind speed, until it eventually dies down. But unfortunately, this can often occur too late, after much damage has already been done. When any hurricane hits land, the results are often damaging and even catastrophic. 




The World Meteorological Organization is in charge of naming hurricanes. The names are chosen from a list of names that are alphabetically ordered from A to W. What happened to X, Y and Z? Well maybe they couldn’t think of enough names beginning with those letters so they aren’t included; neither are Q and U. There are a total of six lists, which are recycled every six years. If a storm is too devastating, like Katrina in 2005, then its name is removed from the list. Each year, the first hurricane of the season is named the A name, the second storm gets the B name, and so on. For example, in 2014, we have Hurricanes Arthur, Bertha and Cristobal to start the season. Can you find your name on the list?



Hurricanes are huge and powerful windstorms that gather their energy through contact with warm waters. The water has to be about 80°F (26°C) or warmer, which is why warming sea surface temperatures also make the conditions more ideal for hurricanes to form. Warm waters also cause greater evaporation, generating clouds. The warm and humid air has very low pressure, so cooler winds spiral toward it. The moist air rises higher and condenses into thick clouds.


The wind blows the clouds into a spiral. In the center is the “eye” of the storm, which is the calmest part, with the lightest winds. Just outside this calm portion is the eye wall, where the winds are the strongest and rainfall the heaviest. An eye wall is the most destructive part of the hurricane and where the wind speed is the highest. A storm surge is a big mound of water that piles up as the hurricane spirals around. This can be especially devastating when it hits land.



Climate change affects the hydrological cycle, and therefore all the water on Earth from precipitation to sea level. The IPCC says that we can expect more extreme events with climate change, many of which may result in too little or too much precipitation. Flooding almost always occurs during extreme events like hurricanes, but can also happen from storm surge and rising sea level. It can result in the cutoff of our basic services, like communication, power, and transportation, and flooding of our businesses and homes for weeks to months.

The IPCC identifies many regions as vulnerable to intensifying droughts over the next century, including central North America, southern and central Europe, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil, and southern Africa. Drought is defined as below-normal levels of rivers, lakes and groundwater. Farmers are especially hard hit when the rains don’t come, causing irrigation shortages and lower crop yields. Too much or too little rain threatens global food production, affecting fruits, vegetables, grain, livestock, and what we can grow in our gardens or buy at the local market. 

If you live near the coastline, then you’ve seen the tide rise and fall. But what if the tide kept getting higher until your entire home or neighborhood went underwater? It may seem crazy to imagine, but that is exactly what many communities around the world are facing. Warming temperatures and melting glaciers are causing sea level rise. Current sea level rise is about 3.3 mm per year, but the rate is even higher in some coastal areas such as the eastern United States and for multiple island nations in the Pacific Ocean. Many coastal communities are already dealing with the impacts of sea level rise including coastal erosion, sea flooding and saline intrusion into their local water systems




Tangier is a tiny island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, between Virginia and Maryland. Sea level rise and the chance of intensifying hurricane storms with climate change make this island one of the most vulnerable places to live in the United States. The communities of Tangier may be forced to abandon their homes as the island continues to be submerged by water. Since 1850, it has already lost two-thirds of its land.

For multiple generations, the families of Tangier have been harvesting fish, crabs and oysters for a living. Tangier is the primary source for the world famous soft shell crab and the Chesapeake Bay Blue crab. But this low-lying coastal island is vulnerable to severe flooding with a coastline made of many sandy ridges, tidal streams, and marshes. Rising waters continuously erode about nine acres of Tangier’s coastline into the bay every year.

Over the past 400 years, more than 500 islands have disappeared from Chesapeake Bay—40 of which were once inhabited. A study finds that in the next 20 to 50 years rising water may completely submerge the island. If this happens, the 400 families of Tangier would become the first climate change refugees in the United States. Some families on the island are hoping for a sea wall to be built to help keep the island from disappearing!



The air on our planet is shared by all of us. We have a thin atmosphere that makes life on Earth possible, but the air changes by what we put into it. When we change the air, it impacts all of us.

How clean is the air you breathe? We all need clean air to breathe and stay healthy, but if you live in or have visited a big city, then you might know what it is like to breathe in the air next to a busy road – it’s a lot different from breathing in the air from an open meadow. The term air quality is the state of the air around us. Good air quality means that the air is clean, clear and unpolluted. Bad air quality means that there is air pollution. Air pollution comes from unwanted and harmful chemicals in the air. It is a major concern and results from many of today’s modern activities, including driving a car, turning on the air conditioning, and running the large factories that produce power.

There are many different kinds of pollutants in the air. Some are made as by-products of anthropogenic (human-caused) activities, and others are natural. Some are categorized as short-lived pollutants, meaning that they don’t stay in the air for very long, but can also have a strong warming effect because they can trap a lot of heat. Short-lived climate pollutants include methane, black carbon (or soot), ground level ozone, and HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs are man-made greenhouse gases that come from air conditioning, refrigeration, and aerosols. Ozone is a by-product of burning fossil fuels, and when inhaled it can be harmful to our lungs. Methane is a gas that comes from animals, like cattle, digesting food, and is released from our landfills. Methane stays in the air for about 12 years, but traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Smog is smoke and fog mixed together. Natural sources of air pollution include dust, ash from volcanoes, and smoke and carbon monoxide from wildfires. Pollutants are bad for our health and can even lead to trouble breathing. For example, asthma has been linked to increased exposure to air pollution.


Coal plants are one of the worst air polluters. Burning coal causes smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution. Sulfur dioxide emitted from a coal plant leads to acid rain that can damage crops and pollute forests, soils, lakes and streams. Nitrogen oxides released lead to ground ozone and smog which
leads to respiratory problems. Mercury also comes from coal plants, which is a major toxin that impacts human health. Many harmful pollutants comes from coal plants. It¹s best for everyone to decrease coal use and use clean energy to help clean up our air!


Ozone (O3) occurs in two layers of our atmosphere, up high and down low. The upper level, about 12 to 19 miles up in the air, is called the ozone layer and it acts as a protective layer from the sun’s powerful rays. Ground-level ozone is created by a chemical reaction between harmful emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). These emissions come from places like industrial facilities, chemical solvents, electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust and gasoline vapors. Ground-level ozone levels can be especially high on a warm sunny day, as the heat of the sun bakes these pollutants. Breathing ozone is bad for our lungs! 

Everyone has a right to clean air and environmental policy has been critical to improving air quality. The Clean Air Act, originally passed in 1963, resulted in dramatic reductions of air pollution and the implementation of new technologies for vehicles and factories that help keep the air clean across the United States. The United Nations launched an international initiative to help reduce the amount of short-lived climate pollutants and promote clean air. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition includes over 34 countries that support finding solutions to reducing these pollutants around the world. Changes in technology and policy from the local to the global level is necessary in keeping our air clean and safe to breathe.


 Fire Alert!

The altered heat in our air from climate change is also changing the conditions of wildfire. With climate change, the rise in warming temperatures and drought conditions make forests more susceptible to fire. In the northwest of the United States, there has been a 1,000 percent increase in large fires (bigger than 1,000 acres) since the 1970s. Keeping our forests healthy is key to reducing the risk of fire, but as the climate warms the forests are getting drier and more susceptible to pest infestations. Climate scientists find the wildfire season is getting longer and they expect more fire outbreaks to occur.

Fires are getting bigger and more frequent. Since 1985, more than 10,400,000 acres have burned by human-caused climate change. Fire season is lasting about ten weeks longer. Today, fires are more dangerous for local fire fighters because they are burning hotter and faster. In California, Arizona, and other states in the western United States, tens of thousands of firefighters are battling big megafires to protect the communities that are living in fire prone areas. As urban populations expand building into fire prone areas, more families are vulnerable to losing their homes during a wildfire. Not only is fire destructive, but the air from fire outbreaks is dangerous to breathe. The health of firefighters, local communities, and even families living far away are impacted by the smoke coming from wildfire that is harmful to inhale.



 From Coal to Clean Energy

Coal comes from fossilized plant matter and is stored deep in the earth. As we learned, coal is a carbon sink, storing carbon dioxide that was taken out of the air through plant respiration millions of years ago. Once coal is dug up from the earth and burned, it releases all those stored greenhouse gases back into the air. Coal has been our primary source of energy since the Industrial Revolution and has supported the growth of our modern nations and big industries. Unfortunately, coal is the dirtiest source of fuel in the world and is responsible for much of the atmospheric warming causing climate change.

Today, we recognize that burning coal is no longer sustainable and its impact on the health of our planet is too costly. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, which means that they will eventually run out, and some predict that may happen in the next 50 to 100 years. Coal plants in the United States provide about 30% of the electrical energy to power our homes and businesses, and this number is dropping. Many power plants are now turning to renewable energy like solar and wind to replace the coal mines. This choice to use clean energy is in the right direction to help create more jobs and keep our air and water clean!

In Kentucky, in a place called Pike County, the local economy depended on mining coal for generations. But like many places in the Appalachian region of the United States, the coal mines are closing as electrical power plants move toward burning natural gas and using renewable energy like wind and solar. As coal mines close, there are new opportunities to transform the abandoned mining sites into a green energy haven. Take a look at this video showing how two local brothers from Pike county built a solar facility on a reclaimed mountaintop removal mine site that now powers 90,000 homes and brings back jobs to the local economy.



“For thousands of years, many people believed that nature was made up of four elemental forces: earth, air, water, and fire. But I’ve come to realize there’s a fifth element: people. We’re are a force of nature too. People are changing the other elements. At the same time, the elements are changing us. ” -James Balog

  • We change the basic elements –earth, air, water and fire, and the elements change us.
  • We are now in the Anthropocene, meaning that humans are a major force in all of earth’s systems and climate change.
  • Climate change results big changes to our weather systems and extreme events that affect our health, food, air and water.
  • Climate change doesn’t differentiate between who may be affected— all of us are vulnerable to the impacts.