Humans as the third evolutionary stage of biosphere engineering of rivers

Williams, Mark and Zalasiewicz, Jan and Davies, Neil and Mazzini, Ilaria and Goiran, Jean-Philippe and Kane, Stephanie (2014) Humans as the third evolutionary stage of biosphere engineering of rivers. Anthropocene, 7. pp. 57-63. ISSN 22133054 DOI 10.1016/j.ancene.2015.03.003

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Official URL: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2015.03.003

Abstract

We examine three fundamental changes in river systems induced by innovations of the biosphere, these being: (1) the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis; (2) the development of vascular plants with root systems; and (3) the evolution of humans. The first two innovations provide context for the degree of human-induced river change. Early river systems of the Precambrian Archean Eon developed in an atmosphere with no free oxygen, and fluvial sediments accumulated ‘reduced detrital’ minerals. By 2.4 Ga the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis produced an oxygenated atmosphere and ‘reduced detrital’ minerals mostly disappeared from rivers, affording a distinct mineralogical difference from subsequent fluvial deposits. Rivers of the Precambrian and early Phanerozoic were dominantly braided, but from 0.416 Ga, the evolution of vascular plants with roots bound floodplain sediments and fostered fine-grained meandering rivers. Early meandering river deposits show extensive animal activity including fish and arthropod tracks and burrows. Homo sapiens, appearing about 150 ka BP, has, in recent millennia, profoundly modified river systems, altering their mineralogical, morphological and sedimentary state. Changes in sediment fluxes caused by human ‘reverse engineering’ of the terrestrial biosphere include deforestation, irrigation and agriculture. Sediment retention has been encouraged by the construction of dams. Modern river systems are associated with extensive human trace fossils that show a developing complexity from ancient civilizations through to megacities. Changes induced by humans rank in scale with those caused by earlier biosphere innovations at 2.4 and 0.416 Ga, but would geologically soon revert to a “pre-human” state were humans to become extinct.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: 2015AREP, IA68
Subjects: 07 - Sedimentary Geology
Divisions: 08 - Green Open Access
11 - Sedimentary Geology
Journal or Publication Title: Anthropocene
Volume: 7
Page Range: pp. 57-63
Identification Number: 10.1016/j.ancene.2015.03.003
Depositing User: Sarah Humbert
Date Deposited: 09 Apr 2017 02:52
Last Modified: 09 Apr 2017 02:52
URI: http://eprints.esc.cam.ac.uk/id/eprint/3898

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