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We assess the scale and extent of the physical technosphere, defined here as the summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise. It includes active urban, agricultural and marine components, used to sustain energy and material flow for current human life, and a growing residue layer, currently only in small part recycled back into the active component. Preliminary estimates suggest a technosphere mass of approximately 30 trillion tonnes (Tt), which helps support a human biomass that, despite recent growth, is ~5 orders of magnitude smaller. The physical technosphere includes a large, rapidly growing diversity of complex objects that are potential trace fossils or ‘technofossils’. If assessed on palaeontological criteria, technofossil diversity already exceeds known estimates of biological diversity as measured by richness, far exceeds recognized fossil diversity, and may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history. The rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere and its myriad components underscores the novelty of the current planetary transformation.
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The Anthropocene Review
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DOI: 10.1177/2053019616677743
Scale and diversity of the
physical technosphere:
A geological perspective
Jan Zalasiewicz,1 Mark Williams,1 Colin N Waters,1,2
Anthony D Barnosky,3 John Palmesino,4
Ann-Sofi Rönnskog,5 Matt Edgeworth,6 Cath Neal,7
Alejandro Cearreta,8 Erle C Ellis,9 Jacques Grinevald,10
Peter Haff,11 Juliana A Ivar do Sul,12 Catherine Jeandel,13
Reinhold Leinfelder,14 John R McNeill,15 Eric Odada,16
Naomi Oreskes,17 Simon James Price,2,18 Andrew Revkin,19
Will Steffen,20 Colin Summerhayes,21 Davor Vidas,22
Scott Wing23 and Alexander P Wolfe24
We assess the scale and extent of the physical technosphere, defined here as the summed material
output of the contemporary human enterprise. It includes active urban, agricultural and marine
components, used to sustain energy and material flow for current human life, and a growing
residue layer, currently only in small part recycled back into the active component. Preliminary
estimates suggest a technosphere mass of approximately 30 trillion tonnes (Tt), which helps
support a human biomass that, despite recent growth, is ~5 orders of magnitude smaller. The
physical technosphere includes a large, rapidly growing diversity of complex objects that are
potential trace fossils or ‘technofossils’. If assessed on palaeontological criteria, technofossil
Department of Geology, University of Leicester, UK
2 British Geological Survey, UK
3 Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University,
4 Architectural Association School of Architecture, UK
5 Oslo Centre for Urban and Landscape Studies, Norway
6 School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University
of Leicester, UK
7University of York, UK
8Universidad del País Vasco, Spain
9 University of Maryland, USA
IHEID, Switzerland
11 Duke University, USA
12Federal University of Rio Grande, Brazil
13 LEGOS (CNRS/CNES/IRD/Université Paul Sabatier),
14 Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
15Georgetown University, USA
16University of Nairobi, Kenya
17Harvard University, USA
18Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK
19Pace University, USA
20The Australian National University, Australia
21Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, UK
22Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway
23Smithsonian Institution, USA
24University of Alberta, Canada
Corresponding author:
Jan Zalasiewicz, Department of Geology, University of
Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK.
677743ANR0010.1177/2053019616677743The Anthropocene ReviewZalasiewicz et al.
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2 The Anthropocene Review
diversity already exceeds known estimates of biological diversity as measured by richness, far
exceeds recognized fossil diversity, and may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s
history. The rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere and its
myriad components underscores the novelty of the current planetary transformation.
Anthropocene, anthroposphere, artefacts, stratigraphy, technology, technosphere
Context of the physical technosphere
Organisms interact dynamically with the abiotic world around them and with each other, as they
seek the resources they need to live and reproduce. Plants root themselves in the soil and absorb
water and nutrients from it, take in carbon dioxide from the air and excrete oxygen back into it.
Herbivorous animals eat the plants and excrete their undigested remains back on to the soil, while
absorbing oxygen from the air and respiring carbon dioxide – and frequently emitting methane –
back into it. Carnivores eat the herbivores and likewise excrete their undigested remains on to the
land surface, which are then reworked by consortia of microbes and invertebrates. Similar pro-
cesses occur in the marine realm with the cycling of biomass between phytoplankton primary
production, organisms that consume phytoplankton and carnivores that in turn consume them, with
returns of organic matter to the water column and seabed occurring at each trophic level.
Some organisms may modify the habitable surface around them as shelter. Protozoans such as
the aquatic agglutinated foraminifera build tests from sand and silt grains. Nest-builders include
birds, ants and termites, while there are burrowing organisms both on land and under the sea. A few
animals are tool-users: not only non-human primates (Koops et al., 2015), but birds (Roelofs,
2010), cetaceans (Krützen et al., 2005), fish, octopi, ants and wasps. Some of the largest mamma-
lian herbivores and carnivores, and even small mammals such as beavers and prairie dogs, are
ecosystem engineers (Wright et al., 2002).
However, Homo sapiens sapiens has, by far, gone the furthest in using technology – machines,
factories, computers and such – to consciously or unwittingly alter the surrounding environment,
to extract minerals, generate energy, make food and shelter, provide global communication, and
so on. This modification is made possible by humanity’s sophisticated social structure (Ellis,
2015), and by our species’ ‘object orientation’ (Koops et al., 2015), which pre-disposes technol-
ogy use. The interaction between people, societies and their technology has grown in importance
through human history, becoming ever more sophisticated in a manner reminiscent of co-evolu-
tion (Basalla, 1988; Mesoudi et al., 2006). Today, human influence on materials extends glob-
ally, including deep underground and into outer space. As technology became more sophisticated,
it opened new opportunities that humans and their societies exploited, which in turn prompted
development of yet more varied and complex technology. Human–tool interactions hence seem
critically important: these are now evolving (sensu lato) from generation to generation at rates
that vastly outpace the modification, via natural selection, of not only our species, but of all
known species.
One way to describe and analyse this modification is via the concept of the technosphere (here
sensu Haff, 2014; see also Hall, 1975; Milsum, 1968), a new component of the Earth System that
may be considered an offshoot of the biosphere sensu Vernadsky (1929). The technosphere as
defined here comprises our complex social structures together with the physical infrastructure and
technological artefacts supporting energy, information and material flows that enable the system to
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Zalasiewicz et al. 3
work, including entities as diverse as power stations, transmission lines, roads and buildings,
farms, plastics, tools, airplanes, ballpoint pens and transistors. The components of the techno-
sphere co-evolve rapidly, with complex and frequently changing lead–lag relationships predicated
by additional constructs reserved to the human species, such as behaviours modulated by markets’
supply and demand. The technosphere overlaps broadly, and interacts intimately, with the other
spheres, an example being humans and their domestic animals and cultivated plants, which now
make up much of the biosphere and are embedded within the technosphere, while humans are also
the generators of the technosphere. This is analogous to water being an essential component in both
the hydrosphere and atmosphere.
We here provide a first step in developing a taxonomy of physical components of the techno-
sphere. Progress in scientific understanding of the biosphere and of geology began with classifica-
tion of organisms and of rock strata, early efforts being based on assessments of morphology, size,
composition and other easily defined metrics, by Linnaeus, Buffon, Cuvier, William Smith and
others. We are now at a comparable early stage in fleshing out the taxonomy of the physical tech-
nosphere. Cataloguing and classifying its elements is a subjective and untested process, and omits
certain important elements, such as radio waves, that leave no lasting physical entity. Nevertheless,
given the current lack of a quantitative inventory of morphological diversity, we provide here a
descriptive analysis of form and extent of some technological artefacts and systems. To this are
added order-of-magnitude estimates of basic quantities such as mass and spatial dimension.
The physical technosphere is the simplest part of this system to assess in a geological context.
Our estimates may help inform both considerations of formal stratigraphy (Waters et al., 2016) and
wider discussions on the Anthropocene and its underlying social and technological processes,
including those relating to material culture in archaeology (Hodder, 2011). Future work in techno-
spheric taxonomy might include devising classifications of technological morphology and ulti-
mately making connection to dynamical considerations, for instance of energy flows.
Components of the physical technosphere
We define the physical technosphere as consisting of technological materials within which a human
component can be distinguished, with part in active use and part being a material residue. The
human signature may be recognized by characteristics including form, function and composition
that result from deliberate design, manufacture and processing. This includes extraction, process-
ing and refining raw geological materials into novel forms and combinations of elements, com-
pounds and products.
The active technosphere is made up of buildings, roads, energy supply structures, all tools,
machines and consumer goods that are currently in use or useable, together with farmlands and
managed forests on land, the trawler scours and other excavations of the seafloor in the oceans, and
so on. It is highly diverse in structure, with novel inanimate components including new minerals
and materials (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014a), and a living part that includes crop plants and domesti-
cated animals. Humans both produce and are sustained by (and now are dependent on) the rest of
the physical technosphere.
Parts of the technosphere, at the end of their useful life, are more or less immediately recycled
back into the main active structure: a considerable proportion of aluminium and iron; some glass,
paper, plastic; some of the rubble layers beneath cities. Other parts accumulate to form a growing
material residue or waste layer (the archaeosphere of Edgeworth et al., 2015) much of which has
considerable long-term preservation potential (e.g. Zalasiewicz et al., 2016). This accumulation is
most clearly exemplified by modern landfill sites, but also includes gaseous components (e.g.
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4 The Anthropocene Review
carbon dioxide and methane that accumulate in the atmosphere), other more or less disseminated
pollutants in the hydrosphere and lithosphere, and soil washed off the land surface as a result of
urbanization, agriculture and forestry. The marked growth in the waste layer of the technosphere
– reflecting relatively ineffective recycling by comparison with the almost perfect recycling shown
by the non-human biosphere – has some uses for humans, locally providing a platform for con-
struction (especially as reclaimed land in coastal areas). It may at times increase biodiversity, as in
the construction of artificial reefs, though not always successfully (Sherman and Spieler, 2006).
Overall, though, this inefficient recycling is a considerable threat to its own further development
and to the parent biosphere (Haff, 2014; Steffen et al., 2004, 2015).
Here we focus on both the active and residual parts of the physical technosphere. Assessing the
mass and composition of these is hampered by their complexity, lateral compositional and geomet-
ric variability, and rapid change through time. Nevertheless, we provide provisional estimates
(Table 1) that, while possessing large uncertainties, nonetheless illustrate the scale of the physical
technosphere that now supports Homo sapiens sapiens, allowing our species to populate the planet
in numbers far exceeding those attained as hunter-gatherers, by roughly three orders of magnitude
(Haff, 2014), and exceeding those of pre-industrial history by about one order of magnitude.
The urban technosphere
The growing towns and cities (Hooke et al., 2012; Liu et al., 2014) are linked with societal energy
flows an order of magnitude greater than those of early agricultural communities (Nakicenovic et al.,
2012: 108–115), and disproportionately large attendant impacts on the global environment (Zhu
et al., 2012). They are the most obvious part of the technosphere, including buildings, roads, airport
runways, docks, quarries, mines and their associated waste dumps, canals, levees, dams, concreted
waterways, paved open spaces, with a complexly engineered substructure of foundations, water and
energy supply lines, landfills, sewage tunnels, railway lines and metro systems. This assemblage has
been partially planned, mapped and archived, but not yet systematically converted into geological
terms that would allow full consideration as ‘urban strata’, to be contrasted with ‘natural’ geological
strata (Figure 1). Archaeologists, though, excavate and record urban layers as distinct from underly-
ing geological strata (Carver, 1987), compiling large data sets relevant to this process.
Table 1. Approximate mass of the major components of the physical technosphere, arranged in order of
descending mass (where 1 Tt = 1012 metric tonnes).
Component Area (106 km2) Thickness (cm) Density (g/cm3) Mass (Tt) Percent (%)
Urban areas 3.70 200 1.50 11.10 36.9
Rural housing 4.20 100 1.50 6.30 20.9
Pasture 33.50 10 1.50 5.03 16.7
Cropland 16.70 15 1.50 3.76 12.5
Trawled sea floor 15.00 10 1.50 2.25 7.5
Land use and eroded soil 5.30 10 1.50 0.80 2.7
Rural roads 0.50 50 1.50 0.38 1.3
Plantation forest 2.70 10 1.00 0.27 0.9
Reservoirs 0.20 100 1.00 0.20 0.7
Railways 0.03 50 1.50 0.02 0.1
Totals (where applicable) 81.83 30.11
Notes: Spatial extent is based partially on Hooke etal. (2012), and information on approximate thickness and density are
from Ford etal. (2014), Edgeworth etal. (2015) and Gattuso etal. (2009).
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Zalasiewicz et al. 5
Buildings – solid, complex but hollow, air-filled structures – following demolition or destruc-
tion can be compacted into a solid layer comprising the brick, concrete, glass, metal, plastic,
ceramic, wood and other materials used in architecture. Such demolition is intrinsic to ongoing
redevelopment of urban space to maintain its functionality. This demolition can at times be abrupt
and widespread, as happened to much of Britain’s bomb-damaged housing stock after the Second
World War (Saunders, 2005), for instance in Longford Park by Coventry, where part of the valley
was filled with 4–6 m of demolition rubble. Equivalent war-derived rubble in Berlin was redistrib-
uted in mounds within the city boundary. Fourteen such mounds still exist, the largest being the
Teufelsberg hill (Figure 2), comprising Anthropocene rubble up to 80 m thick, with an area of 1.1
million m2 and an original rubble volume of 26.2 million m3 (Cocroft and Schofield, 2012; Mielke,
2011). Much contemporary armed conflict, too, is characterized by urban warfare, involving exten-
sive destruction of built structures and redistribution of the resulting rubble.
Analysis of the resulting mass of the physical system would require measuring the volume of
the buildings and associated structures within any given area using digital surface models (DSMs)
of urban areas, together with information of likely internal composition (percentage concrete,
brick, glass, wood, etc.) from building and architectural records. Some archaeology-based projects
now have similar aims (e.g. de Beer et al., 2012). One needs also include underground substruc-
ture, including concrete pilings and services such as sewage, gas and water pipelines and metro
systems that may extend tens of metres underground (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014c). In this overview
(Table 1), we take a far more generalized approach, outlined below.
The active urban technosphere is largely built on and within its material residue layer, which
approximates to what may be delineated on geological maps as varieties of ‘artificial ground’ – an
anthropogenically reworked mixture of rock fragments, soil, building rubble and other forms of
waste, locally concentrated as landfill (Ford et al., 2014), and in archaeological records as ‘archae-
ological strata’. Combining these two disciplinary approaches would best categorize and map these
material residue layers. The geological mapping, based on information including analysis of bore-
hole records and geophysical surveys, together with archaeological information from excavations
and other forms of subsurface investigation, can provide an approximate 3D model of this unit,
which may – somewhat counter-intuitively – be easier to construct than that of the functional urban
technosphere of the same area. For example, in London, an average thickness of artificial deposits
Figure 1. Bricks and concrete fragments in carbonate-cemented beach rock deposits on the Tunelboca
geosite, Basque region, Spain.
Source: A Cearreta.
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6 The Anthropocene Review
of 1.6 m has been estimated (Ford et al., 2014), increasing to 8–10 m in the historic core of the city
(Rowsome, 2000), and up to 30 m deep in places where old docks have been infilled, such as parts
of the 2012 Olympics site. Where mineral resource extraction coincides with urban centres (e.g.
northern England coalfields), there may also be greater-than-average thicknesses.
Such assessments can provide snapshots in time. In reality, the city is constantly metabolizing
(Bettencourt et al., 2007; Kennedy et al., 2011) with inflows of food and water and outflows of
sewage produced by its human component, the latter undertaking constant daily migrations with
hydrocarbon-powered vehicles (cars, buses, trains, ferries) or ones powered electrically (mostly
trains). The urban technosphere is also evolving year on year as building and demolition take place,
in effect operating as an anthropogenically driven sedimentary system with inflow, accretion, ero-
sion and outflow of its component materials, here not powered by gravity or by wind, but mainly
by directed energy release from hydrocarbons. While the sources of many materials – especially
the bulk materials used for building – may be relatively well constrained, the short- and medium-
term sinks of those materials are less so. Ultimately, they or their erosion products will be buried
more or less directly, or transported to a sedimentary basin and then buried, depending on the tec-
tonic setting (uplifting or subsiding) of the urban substrate.
The rural technosphere
Between the urban and rural technosphere is a suburban transitional zone largely comprising low-
density housing and gardens interlaced with transport networks. Here the ‘urban strata’ are thinner
and patchier than their city correlative, perhaps averaging a metre or so thick.
Figure 2. The Teufelsberg Formation (sensu Leinfelder and Scheffold, unpubl.) of war rubble including
concrete, brick, clinker, rock, fly ash, slag and solid chemical waste, deposited between 1950 and 1972,
forming the highest elevation of Berlin. Thin Holocene deposits may locally separate the Pleistocene and
Anthropocene units.
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Zalasiewicz et al. 7
These suburban transition areas have transformed over recent decades into interconnected sup-
ply areas and lines along which growing amounts of materials are moved. The pattern of contem-
porary transformation here is complex and heterogenous through time, often being radially
disposed around city centres (Figure 3).
Similarly, farther out in rural regions, the areally extensive soil + crop + domestic animal com-
bination, together with the artificial irrigation and drainage networks which allow the croplands to
function, may also be placed in the functional technosphere. While this zone might also be regarded
as part of a heavily human-modified biosphere, and has also been analysed in terms of anthromes
(anthropogenic biomes: Ellis et al., 2010), we categorize it here within the technosphere because
of its continual modification into the main resource that sustains the human component of cities.
Following this logic, managed forestry (trees + soil) may be placed in this category too, and per-
haps also the rivers that traverse it, being largely contained via embankments and locally impounded
behind dams (Syvitski and Kettner 2011).
How far may one take this unit? Even the thin soils, rough vegetation and sparse sheep popula-
tions of upland pasture (once heavily forested) are essentially all continually modified from pre-
existing patterns to support human populations. There are relics of a former agricultural landscape
Figure 3. Multiyear analysis of urban/suburban technosphere transformations across London. This
multiyear multispectral analysis is derived from Landsat data, and detects transformations in reflectance of
hard surfaces. Changes in impervious surfaces (sensed between 0.45 and 0.52 µm) are indicated in different
colours (red indicates change to 1989, green 2001, and blue 2012). The image (50 km across) shows the
complexity in space and time of transformations over two decades. Additional modifications not detected
by this imagery, e.g. underground, will also have occurred.
Source: Territorial Agency /John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, with David Hellström.
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8 The Anthropocene Review
locally, too, such as the dry-stone walls hidden among the woods of New England, and, scattered
across Europe, mounds representing single buildings or whole villages abandoned following the
bubonic plagues that once ravaged the region.
In these regions, the residual (waste) component includes scattered landfills and patchy areas of
artificial ground, laced with anthropogenic additions that range from nitrate and phosphate com-
pounds, to manure and ‘night soil’, to pesticide residues. There are earthworks such as embank-
ments, excavations for railways and roads, lynchets (earthen banks) and ridge-and-furrow formations,
canals and ditches, and older archaeological features and deposits (Edgeworth, 2014). Sediment
washed or blown from ploughed or de-vegetated areas (that may then become ‘dustbowls’) com-
monly accumulates on lower slopes, within floodplains or behind dams. Additional localised waste
masses relate to the extraction of rocks and minerals (including hydrocarbons and metals) used to
construct and power the active urban technosphere, with empty spaces such as quarries often serv-
ing also as repository for urban waste. Waste deposition sites may contain complex, often toxic,
chemicals, emit methane and other gases, and include collapse-prone voids.
The subterranean technosphere
The technosphere extends deeply into the subterranean rock mass via mines, boreholes and other
underground constructions (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014b). These structures are typically temporary
conduits for the managed flux of potable water, liquid and solid effluent, hydrocarbons, metals and
minerals (and in the case of subway systems the flux of humans themselves). Even after use they
may retain solid form (such as metal borehole casings, concrete grouting and pit props). Some may
retain longer-term use (as with underground salt caverns for gas storage), while others may be
actively converted into the waste technosphere, like the sophisticated, highly engineered structures
for nuclear waste storage. There is also disturbance of the rock mass itself, e.g. through collapse of
underground cavities or hydraulic fracturing, propagating fractures and chemically modifying the
rock mass far beyond the immediate intrusion site. The subterranean technosphere is difficult to
quantify and is not included in the estimate of technosphere mass shown in Table 1.
The marine technosphere
The technosphere reaches far into the marine realm; the most obvious representatives comprise
mobile technological objects (ships, submarines) and more or less fixed ones (oil platforms and
pipelines, piers, docks, aquaculture structures). The latter include construction at the sea’s margin
for transport (ports and harbours) and to stabilize coastlines or reclaim seabed areas (sea walls,
polders and artificial islands).
There are other, larger components. The bottom-trawled area of sea floor now extends over
most of the continental shelves, and locally out onto the continental slope; this is the submarine
equivalent of terrestrial agricultural soils, repeatedly ploughed to depths of some decimetres to
scrape up seafood to feed humans, locally triggering sediment gravity flows (Martin et al., 2015).
Volumes of seawater, too, are systematically fished, now dramatically altering global fish stocks
(Pauly et al., 1998); not easily defined, and not quantified here, these spaces have nevertheless
effectively been co-opted into the technosphere.
The waste component of the submarine technosphere includes a land-derived component, most
vividly demonstrated by dumped masses of garbage, spoil masses from coastal mining operations, war
debris including wrecks and dumped munitions, ballast material from ships (WBGU, 2013), and
widely dispersed plastic debris (Ivar do Sul and Costa, 2014; Zalasiewicz et al., 2016). Less obvious,
but potentially definable, are deposits remobilized and transported by bottom trawling (Martin et al.,
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2015) and other anthropogenic sea floor disturbances. These processes may effect significant bio-
sphere change, as in reef systems in the Caribbean, where organic waste accumulation has reduced
some reefs to a microbial mat state (Brocke et al., 2015). Components here also include oil from spills,
plastics, dissolved CFCs and bomb-produced radiocarbon (14C).
The aerial technosphere
The atmosphere is a space now continually crossed by aircraft, mostly along specific migratory
paths. In this and in other ways (such as providing oxygen for both biological and industrial respi-
ration, wind for turbines, and passage for radio waves) it may be regarded as an enabling medium
for the technosphere, rather than a component of it per se. A specific component is internal air in
buildings, modified and controlled for temperature and humidity, across a global stock of buildings
now covering >150 billion m2 (Nakicenovic, et al., 2012).
The atmospheric waste component of the technosphere includes carbon dioxide, methane,
chlorofluorocarbons, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases added by industrial and agricultural
activities, with effective lifetimes from years to many millennia. Without massive, directed anthro-
pogenic intervention, it will take many millennia for the elevated CO2 levels to decline to near-
background levels (Tyrrell, 2011). A particulate component comprises aerosols, radiogenic fallout
(Waters et al., 2015) and fly ash (Oldfield, 2015; Rose, 2015), though these are typically short-
lived, being rained out onto the ground and into the hydrosphere.
Each year, a quantity of carbon dioxide in excess of 2 parts per million (ppm) now accumulates
in the atmosphere (Rubino et al., 2013; Waters et al., 2016), equivalent to about 17 billion tonnes
(Gt) of carbon dioxide annually. The total anthropogenic carbon dioxide burden in the atmosphere
(120 ppm as of 2015, nearly one-third of the total) weighs in at nearly one 1 trillion tonnes (Tt =
109) – the mass equivalent of about 150,000 of Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Egypt – or, as gas at
atmospheric pressure, the equivalent of a pure CO2 gas layer ~1 m thick around the whole globe
(and now thickening at the rate of ~1 mm every two weeks). This does not represent all anthropo-
genic CO2 emissions – approximately one-quarter has been dissolved into the oceans or assimi-
lated by ocean phytoplankton, while the other quarter has been taken up by land biota. The growth
of these gases in the atmosphere is measurable in bubbles of fossil air in ice cores, while dissolving
excess CO2 in the ocean engenders acidification and declining carbonate accretion in organisms
such as corals (Albright et al., 2016) and pteropods (Bednaršek et al., 2012).
The technosphere, since 1957, has extended beyond the atmosphere into outer space in the form
of satellites and related debris orbiting the Earth, and spacecraft elsewhere in, and occasionally
heading beyond, the Solar System (Gorman, 2014).
The physical technosphere and the geological Anthropocene
The material technosphere differs considerably from the stratigraphic record of the Anthropocene
(i.e. the Anthropocene Series, the material equivalent of the Anthropocene Epoch: Zalasiewicz
et al., 2011, 2014c). The Anthropocene Series comprises all strata laid down during the
Anthropocene, whenever that is eventually deemed to have begun (Waters et al., 2016). It includes
anthropogenic deposits (e.g. recent urban strata) and non-anthropogenic ones (desert sands, say,
that have accumulated without perceptible human influence during Anthropocene time).
The anthropogenic component of the Anthropocene Series, if standard geological terminology
applies, approximates to various types of artificial ground among the technosphere waste, includ-
ing bodies of building rubble and landfill, and active technosphere (e.g. embankments). Many
types of artificial deposit remain active, such as landfills and foundations undergoing modification.
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Modern soils (whether agricultural or not) might be reasonably considered part of the Anthropocene
Series, though these are not typically included on geological maps. If soil is worked (as opposed to
undisturbed and natural) then it would also form part of the related concept of the archaeosphere
(Edgeworth, 2014). The Anthropocene Series would not, in traditional classification, include the
most obvious parts of the active technosphere, such as buildings and motor vehicles (these are
generally only considered stratal components once reduced to rubble layers or landfill deposits). It
would, though, include layers of deep-sea sediment and snow and ice on icecaps, which do not
form part of either active or waste-layer technosphere, though they typically contain tiny amounts
of waste material (far-travelled soot, artificial radionuclides, excess carbon dioxide in trapped air
and chemical pollutants such as lead, sulphate and polychlorinated biphenyls).
Hence, the physical technosphere provides an alternative prism within which the Anthropocene
phenomenon can be considered, that more clearly reflects its dynamic nature than does the
chronostratigraphic Anthropocene Series. One of the most remarkable aspects of the techno-
sphere is the diversity and rapid evolution of its technological components; these, the technofos-
sils of the present and future (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014d), are already attaining a level of diversity
and abundance exceeding recognized fossil diversity.
Technospheric diversity and richness
How can one measure the diversity of technofossils? One might, perhaps, do this in the same way
as palaeontologists measure the diversity of fossil organisms. This cannot be done quite as modern
biodiversity is defined and measured, where a common approach tallies the number of biological
species (or alternatively genera, or families, or lineages) living at any one time, this number being
termed taxonomic richness. One commonly used definition of species (in eukaryotic organisms –
i.e. those with a membrane-bound nucleus) is based on ability to interbreed and produce viable
offspring under natural conditions, this definition being typically allied to (but not perfectly mir-
rored by) morphological distinctness. The number of eukaryotic organisms so described as species
is < 2 million, though estimates of the total number, including undescribed species, has ranged
from ~3 to ~100 million, with recent estimates at between 5 and 15 million (Mora et al., 2011, for
instance, suggest ~9 million eukaryotic species). Bacterial diversity, estimated in the thousands by
classical techniques, is now known to number some millions of distinct types of organisms using
DNA-sequencing information, though metazoan species concepts are hard to apply.
The total number of species that has existed in the past is much greater than the number of cur-
rently existing species. Assuming an average species-span is ~2–5 million years, then the half-
billion years of the Phanerozoic Eon has seen the passage of about 1 billion metazoan species. Of
those, only something like 300,000 have been described and named – less than one in a thousand.
Why? Many were soft-bodied, and so unlikely to fossilize, and others were simply rare. Upland
terrestrial zones are likely to have been eroded, leaving no trace of the animals or plants that once
lived there, while the record of the deep ocean floor is eventually obliterated by subduction.
Fossil species, too, are morphospecies, based upon morphological distinctiveness alone, as it is
impossible to say which organisms interbred. Where preserved morphology is simple (as in the
spherical sphaeromorph acritarchs, the fossilized cysts of ancient planktonic algae) then original
genetic diversity is very poorly reflected by the limited morphospecies diversity recognized.
Of the recognized fossil species, perhaps a few thousand are of trace fossils, of tracks, trails,
burrows, nests and footprints. Like body fossils, these are also classified morphologically and
placed within Linnean nomenclature as morphospecies. Although only rarely linked with the trace-
making organism at species level, trace fossils provide key behavioural information typically
absent from morphological fossils.
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Zalasiewicz et al. 11
One might treat artefact types as distinct morphological entities, i.e. as trace fossil (or techno-
fossil) morphospecies. Detailed comparison of biodiversity with total technofossil diversity is cur-
rently impossible. The incompleteness of our cataloguing of both modern and fossil species
(including trace fossil species) is a factor, but is dwarfed by our ignorance of the number of artefact
types that have been made. Unlike the case with taxonomic species databases, there are no inven-
tories of the total diversity of artefacts that we are aware of, and few of any class of artefact or tool,
particularly those made in modern times.
Nevertheless, comparisons with the diversity of specific types of technofossil are revealing.
One commonly produced potential technofossil is the book, and a recent Google-based assessment
of titles revealed ~130 million individual titles (
books-in-the-world/#443wpuoowEqT), recorded since publishing began, with now over a million
new titles each year in the USA alone. These titles range from bestsellers produced in millions, to
doctoral theses of which only a few copies exist; each title nevertheless can be regarded as a dis-
tinct, biologically-produced morphological entity with its own specific pattern of printed words,
pages, dimensions and texture.
A more recent, ‘fossilizeable’ example comprises mobile phones, commercially available since
1983, and with ~6.8 billion unique mobile phone connections made by 2014, operating via hun-
dreds of ‘technospecies’ with complexity of both external and internal structure, of good fossiliza-
tion potential (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014d, 2016).
The total number of artefacts with technofossil potential is unknown, but might exceed by an
order of magnitude the number of book titles. If so, and if such comparison is valid, this number
would equal or exceed the total global biodiversity that has existed on Earth. The technosphere,
thus, represents an unparalleled increase in biologically fashioned morphological diversity at the
Earth’s surface, which is developing a complexity (in computer-based products, for instance) that
might someday rival biological complexity.
As with biological species, not all technofossils will be recognizable following the information loss
associated with fossilization. Future fossilized books, for instance, will likely be rectangular carbonized
masses classifiable by size and relative dimensions and subtle variations in surface texture; fragmentary
details of the print information will only be rarely preserved, as are fragmentary details of DNA struc-
ture in some exceptionally preserved ancient fossils today. Hence – as with the sphaeromorph acritarchs
– the true diversity will be hidden among the smaller number of morphospecies identifiable in practice.
The record of more robust and complex technofossils will better reflect original diversity.
The physical technosphere – that part which can be most easily considered in relation to stratigra-
phy – is characterized by both active and residual components. Continuous growth, transformation
and re-incorporation takes place among these components, and its scope is now global.
Highly preliminary estimates of the major components of the Earth System co-opted into the
technosphere (Table 1) indicate a mass of ~30 trillion tonnes (Tt), equivalent to > 50 kg/m2 of the
Earth’s surface. The total is five orders of magnitude greater than the standing biomass of humans
(~0.3 Gt; Smil, 2011) presently sustained by this construct and its reshaping of the biosphere. The
enormous scale of the technosphere by comparison to pre-anthropogenic systems becomes even
more apparent when one considers that present human biomass is more than double that of all large
terrestrial vertebrates that characterized the Earth prior to human civilization (Barnosky, 2008) and
is an order of magnitude greater than present wild terrestrial vertebrate biomass (Smil, 2011).
It is difficult to assess the accuracy of the numbers offered in Table 1. However, they appear to
be of the correct order of magnitude. For example, if one calculates the mean thickness of the
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12 The Anthropocene Review
terrestrially expressed physical technosphere needed to produce 27.73 Tt (total minus sea trawling;
Table 1), assuming roughly half the landmass (i.e. 69.6 million km2; Hooke et al., 2012) is modi-
fied by humans, one obtains a value of 26.6 cm (24.2–29.4 cm at 1σ), which lies within the range
of thickness estimate provided (10–-200 cm).
Further assessment of the evolving mass and compositional characteristics of the physical tech-
nosphere will allow it to be more precisely compared with allied phenomena such as the biosphere
from which it originated, the stratigraphic Anthropocene in which it is preserved, and the archaeo-
sphere which details the cultural contexts of its formation. While the long-term development of the
technosphere remains uncertain (Williams et al., 2015), its scale and accelerating diversification of
form means that it already represents a distinctive new component at a planetary scale.
We thank Roger LeB. Hooke, Robert M. Hazen for their perceptive and constructive reviews and Deodato
Tapete and the editorial board of this special issue, for thoughtful and useful suggestions and comments as this
paper was evolving. Colin Waters and Simon Price publish with the permission of the Director of the British
Geological Survey.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
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... The proposals have ranged from abiogenesis and early evolution of (proto) life [22,28,[31][32][33][34] to breakthroughs in cooperation, collective behavior, multicellularity and cognition [18,30,[35][36][37][38][39][40]. Even setting aside these concepts, comparisons of key properties of Earth's biosphere and "technosphere" (see, e.g., [41,42]) can yield potentially useful insights into how much the latter is catching up with, or impinging, on the former, which is increasingly timely in the Anthropocene [43,44]. Comparisons of aspects of the biosphere and the technosphere have recently been published in the context of mass [45] and internal information processing [46]. ...
... This pivot to highlighting humans is reminiscent of the comparison of biomass and human-made mass; the latter potentially exceeded the former in the year 2020 [45]. The technosphere engendered by anthropogenic activity has witnessed tremendous growth [42], especially so in the Anthropocene [43,44]. If we consider humans as the "units" in lieu of prokaryotes and introduce the subscript 'h', the analogue of (1) for human-to-human communication is duly expressible as ...
... However, an inherent subtlety vis-à-vis the above discussion merits explication. The technosphere in the Anthropocene evinces escalating information flow [42], which extends far beyond direct human-to-human communication (tackled in the prior paragraph) and encompasses the Internet, among other communication channels [75]. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), entailing Machine-To-Machine (M2M) connections, is swiftly accelerating this trend [76][77][78], with M2M connections probably comprising half of the total in 2022-2023 [79] (, ...
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Information transmission via communication between agents is ubiquitous on Earth, and is a vital facet of living systems. In this paper, we aim to quantify this rate of information transmission associated with Earth’s biosphere and technosphere (i.e., a measure of global information flow) by means of a heuristic order-of-magnitude model. By adopting ostensibly conservative values for the salient parameters, we estimate that the global information transmission rate for the biosphere might be ∼1024 bits/s, and that it may perhaps exceed the corresponding rate for the current technosphere by ∼9 orders of magnitude. However, under the equivocal assumption of sustained exponential growth, we find that information transmission in the technosphere can potentially surpass that of the biosphere ∼90 years in the future, reflecting its increasing dominance.
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... This definition provided by Haff is very broad. It encompasses almost all kinds of forms, compositions and functions that came to be through deliberate manufacture, processing and design [57]. It also includes interactions between people and social macrostructures, such as religious institutions, government and bureaucracies. ...
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Human activity is leaving a pervasive and persistent signature on Earth. Vigorous debate continues about whether this warrants recognition as a new geologic time unit known as the Anthropocene. We review anthropogenic markers of functional changes in the Earth system through the stratigraphic record. The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century. Rates of sea-level rise and the extent of human perturbation of the climate system exceed Late Holocene changes. Biotic changes include species invasions worldwide and accelerating rates of extinction. These combined signals render the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs. Copyright
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In recent decades, changes that human activities have wrought in Earth’s life support system have worried many people. The human population has doubled in the past 40 years and is projected to increase by the same amount again in the next 40. The expansion of infrastructure and agriculture necessitated by this population growth has quickened the pace of land transformation and degradation. We estimate that humans have modified >50% of Earth’s land surface. The current rate of land transformation, particularly of agricultural land, is unsustainable. We need a lively public discussion of the problems resulting from population pressures and the resulting land degradation. *Email: Manuscript received 14 Feb. 2012; accepted 16 Aug. 2012 DOI: 10.1130/GSAT151A.1
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The Earth has shown a systematic increase in mineral species through its history, with three 'eras' comprising ten 'stages' identified by Robert Hazen and his colleagues (Hazen et al. 2008), the eras being associated with planetary accretion, crust and mantle reworking and the influence of life, successively. We suggest that a further level in this form of evolution has now taken place of at least 'stage' level, where humans have engineered a large and extensive suite of novel, albeit not formally recognized minerals, some of which will leave a geologically significant signal in strata forming today. These include the great majority of metals (that are not found natively), tungsten carbide, boron nitride, novel garnets and many others. A further stratigraphic signal is of minerals that are rare in pre-industrial geology, but are now common at the surface, including mullite (in fired bricks and ceramics), ettringite, hillebrandite and portlandite (in cement and concrete) and 'mineraloids' (novel in detail) such as anthropogenic glass. These have become much more common at the Earth's surface since the mid-twentieth century. However, the scale and extent of this new phase of mineral evolution, which represents part of the widespread changes associated with the proposed Anthropocene Epoch, remains uncharted. The International Mineralogical Association (IMA) list of officially accepted minerals explicitly excludes synthetic minerals, and no general inventory of these exists. We propose that the growing geological and societal significance of this phenomenon is now great enough for human-made minerals to be formally listed and catalogued by the IMA, perhaps in conjunction with materials science societies. Such an inventory would enable this phenomenon to be placed more effectively within the context of the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, and would help characterize the strata of the Anthropocene.
The rise of plastics since the mid-20th century, both as a material element of modern life and as a growing environmental pollutant, has been widely described. Their distribution in both the terrestrial and marine realms suggests that they are a key geological indicator of the Anthropocene, as a distinctive stratal component. Most immediately evident in terrestrial deposits, they are clearly becoming widespread in marine sedimentary deposits in both shallow- and deep-water settings. They are abundant and widespread as macroscopic fragments and virtually ubiquitous as microplastic particles; these are dispersed by both physical and biological processes, not least via the food chain and the ‘faecal express’ route from surface to sea floor. Plastics are already widely dispersed in sedimentary deposits, and their amount seems likely to grow several-fold over the next few decades. They will continue to be input into the sedimentary cycle over coming millennia as temporary stores – landfill sites – are eroded. Plastics already enable fine time resolution within Anthropocene deposits via the development of their different types and via the artefacts (‘technofossils’) they are moulded into, and many of these may have long-term preservation potential when buried in strata.