Sediment Flux and the Anthropocene

May 6, 2011
Earth Science Colloquium

Featuring

James P. M. Syvitski
Professor of Geological Sciences
University of Colorado at Boulder

Data and computer simulations are reviewed to help better define the timing and magnitude of human influence on sediment flux-the Anthropocene epoch. Impacts on the Earth surface processes are not spatially or temporally homogeneous. Human influences on this sediment flux have a secondary effect on floodplain and delta-plain functions and sediment dispersal into the coastal ocean. Human impact on sediment production began 3000 years ago but accelerated more widely 1000 years ago. By the sixteenth century, societies were already engineering their environment. Early twentieth century mechanization has led to global signals of increased sediment flux in most large rivers. By the 1950s, this sediment disturbance signal reversed for many rivers owing to the proliferation of dams, and sediment load reduction below pristine conditions is the dominant signal today. A delta subsidence signal began in the 1930s and is now a dominant signal in terms of sea level for many coastal environments, overwhelming even the global warming imprint on sea level. Humans have engineered how most water and sediment are discharged into the coastal ocean. Hyperpycnal flow events have become more common for some rivers, and less common for other rivers. Bottom trawling is now widespread, suggesting that even continental shelves have received a significant but as yet quantified Anthropocene impact. The Anthropocene attains the level of a geological climate event, such as that seen in the transition between the Pleistocene and the Holocene.