On the mineralogy of the “Anthropocene Epoch”
May 18, 2017 10:58 AM   Subscribe

We already know that humanity is having significant effects on the atmosphere and the biosphere, but it turns out that we're changing the lithosphere too. Well, kind of: Humans have caused an explosion of never-before-seen minerals all over the Earth.

From the cited paper's abstract:
Since the advent of human mining and manufacturing, particularly since the industrial revolution of the mid-eighteenth century, mineral-like compounds have experienced a punctuation event in diversity and distribution owing to the pervasive impact of human activities. We catalog 208 mineral species approved by the International Mineralogical Association that occur principally or exclusively as a consequence of human processes.
My personal favorite is fordite, the result of paint buildup in automobile factories.
posted by Etrigan (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I have a Fordite necklace that I bought on Etsy a few years ago and I just love it. It is tiny and it was expensive -- new paint processes don't allow Fordite to develop, so it is rare and getting rarer -- but the colours are so beautiful and the story of what it is is is so fun to tell.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:11 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]

I immediately thought of fordite when I saw this post, and was glad to see it in the "more in side" part. I probably first learned of it from this post.
posted by TedW at 11:12 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]

Yay humans, I guess?
posted by Lyme Drop at 11:17 AM on May 18

I'm sure a goodly number of these spill from our skulls after death...
posted by jim in austin at 11:28 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I've been teaching a course called Archaeology of the Future and this is one of the cool aspects of it. As an archaeologist I'd call most this stuff "an artifact" of course, since a fossil has a fairly specific meaning. But there is a closer analogue to technofossils in the future: techno-casts. One of the longest lasting signs of humans will be things like subway lines and tunnels filled in with sediment and then lithified. In some settings casts will be made of smaller artifacts as well.

It's kind of a buzzword in some circles, but there are some cool sites on the Anthropocene: Welcome to the Anthropocene; Age of Humans (Smithsonian); Living on the Edge of Feasibility; Make Kin not Babies. And it's not all bad, for example, radioactive fallout has been incredibly useful to atmospheric science, neurology, and archaeology.

Artists have also been exploring the technofossil idea, 1, 2.
posted by Rumple at 11:30 AM on May 18 [12 favorites]

Move industrial processes 150 miles away, that is 150 miles straight up, get toxic processes, all manufacturing off the planet. Hard, yes, but what if groups like SpaceX and Blue Origin had massive funding?

Turn the planet into a park!

Free resources for billionaires and trillionaires.

(yes to many it sounds wacko, and yes really really hard, but people live in space now, grow food in space (not enough so far) and there will be industrial accidents, and scaling up is hard to imagine at the moment but look at a gas refinery, hard to imagine how one of those works.)

posted by sammyo at 11:34 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]

Here's an outline for the course I mentioned in case anyone is interested. No reading list attached since I made it up as I went along.
posted by Rumple at 11:48 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]

"at least one new mineral was discovered in a storage cabinet in a museum"

This is the part of the article I wanted to learn waaaaaaay more about.
posted by komara at 12:01 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]

There's a preprint of the Hazen et al. article here. It appears the mineral that only forms in museum storage cabinets is

[Grandfathered; no natural localities]
Van Tassel (1945)
posted by Rumple at 12:36 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

To save someone else from having to google: "A mineral which forms on calcareous rock and fossil specimens and pottery shards through the interaction of acetic acid derived from oak museum storage cabinets."
posted by komara at 12:51 PM on May 18 [8 favorites]

About the time that Concorde stopped flying, I wondered if in some post-human geological epoch, future archaeo/paleo/geologists would ever have a way of knowing it existed. As far as i thought it through, if one were buried in sediment and proceeded along the same general path as, say, 500m year old fossils, then it would take a lot to remove its characteristic fingerprint. Even if the morphology was lost, the concentration of various elements and compounds would be a very strong indication that something complex and organised had been there, and quite a lot could be determined about its function.

I... often think about things like this. There's no evidence it's ever done me any good.
posted by Devonian at 2:43 PM on May 18 [10 favorites]

I guess I'll be That Guy: fordite, while beautiful and named in a mineral-like way, is not a(n anthropogenic) mineral (although foordite is).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:45 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

the concentration of various elements and compounds would be a very strong indication that something complex and organised had been there, and quite a lot could be determined about its function.

I'm imagining a very spirited debate over whether it was part of a tomb or a temple.
posted by fleacircus at 5:37 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

(although foordite is).

The status of fnordite, however, is unclear.

Although I would very much like some fordite, I'd most like some trinitite. Which appears to be available online, but I'm not sure about ordering it through the international post...
posted by Devonian at 5:54 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Trinitite is something of interest to me. I can't find a name for the remains of the melted core of Chernobyl, that someday that will be a mineral.
posted by MikeWarot at 5:55 PM on May 18

One of the longest lasting signs of humans will be things like subway lines and tunnels filled in with sediment and then lithified.

I have to admit I find this idea breathtaking. While it's obvious that we have sprayed stuff all over the place where it doesn't belong and made an awful lot of the unnatural mineral portland cement, I was never really sure that those things would speak of our deliberate presence tens of millions of years in the future. But the cast of a subway system, with stations and tracks and platforms and whatnot, that would certainly give the next intelligent species to evolve on this planet something to think about.

A favorite idea which I've toyed with writing, but never managed to figure out how, is of an intelligent tool-using and spacefaring dinosaur species, confined to the one continent with a temperate climate and probably not plagued by three storey tall killing machines; 65 million years ago that place with the climate of the modern Europe and United States would have been the place we call Antarctica today. I imagine those dinosaurs finding more interest in space than the global equatorial killing zone, and in the process of moving an asteroid into low orbit for resource extraction they lost a booster at the wrong time or slipped a units conversion. And if they had such industry they must have affected their environment as much as we have, except everywhere they lived is now buried under miles of ice and nobody would have any idea it's there to find.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:57 PM on May 18 [10 favorites]

I can't find a name for the remains of the melted core of Chernobyl, that someday that will be a mineral.

It's called corium.

Corium will be a much different thing geologically than it is in the present. Intensely radioactive elements lose their radioactivity quickly through half life decay, so in geological time corium will be relatively inert, but will be a very weird mix of mid-periodic-table fission products, many with oddly unnatural (but obvs. stable) isotopes, and natural high table decay products of the fuel that never got fissioned. It won't be a radiological hazard but if the species that finds it has nuclear technology comparable to our own, they will be able to figure out exactly what created it, right down to design details like the enrichment level and type of moderator used in the reactor that melted down.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:04 PM on May 18 [8 favorites]

There's a passage in one of Gene Wolfe's books where the lead character is descending a cliff and passes strata made from the remains of old buildings and the wreckage of older industrial civilizations, some of which may not even have been human. It's very evocative of Deep Time and the author's point that history is a thing that only operates over a period of hundreds or thousands of years- beyond that it's incomprehensible except perhaps in its broadest outlines.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:08 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

The estimate I use which I can link when not on mobile is there are approximately 50 million km of mine shafts and oil wells and tunnels and other obvious anthropogenic underground structures on earth. That's enough to reach to Mars. People argue about whether Dinosaurs had civilization and/or how would we know but human impact on earth just via digging holes will be visible for hundreds of millions of years or longer.
posted by Rumple at 6:28 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

I like to imagine far-future species (either alien or evolved from our own) finding the subway tunnels, but no sign of cars, and exclaiming: "How did they destroy this planet? They all used public transportation!"
posted by General Malaise at 7:12 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

"My personal favorite is fordite, the result of paint buildup in automobile factories."

Oh, no, you can't sucker me in; last time MetaFilter talked about fordite I ended up spending a ridiculous amount of money on a specimen.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Pfft. Minerals.

It turns out humans might actually have altered the Van Allen Belts.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:17 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

Not all corium is anthropogenic, though.
posted by Devonian at 4:40 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

That article was awesome, thanks! But it said there wasn't any evidence of meltdown events that would create corium?
posted by asperity at 9:34 AM on May 19

There's a fun substance called "Rainbow Calsilica" (other names are sometimes used) which was marketed as a natural stone until a sample turned up that was obviously not ancient.
posted by kinnakeet at 1:55 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

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