Stratigraphic expressions of the Holocene-Anthropocene transition revealed in sediments from remote lakes

Alexander P. Wolfe, William O. Hobbs, Hilary H. Birks, Jason P. Briner, Sofia U. Holmgren, Ólafur Ingólfsson, Sujay S. Kaushal, Gifford H. Miller, Mark Pagani, Jasmine E. Saros, Rolf D. Vinebrooke

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


Stratigraphic boundaries are ideally defined by distinct lithological, geochemical, and palaeobiological signatures, to which a chronological framework can be applied. We present a range of observations that illustrate how the Holocene-Anthropocene transition meets these criteria in its expression in sediments from remote arctic and alpine lakes, removed from direct, catchment-scale, anthropogenic influences. In glaciated lake basins, the retreat of glaciers commonly leads to lithological successions from proglacial clastic sedimentation to non-glacial organic deposition. Sediments from the majority of lakes record marked depletions in the nitrogen stable isotopic composition of sediment organic matter, reflecting anthropogenic influences on the global nitrogen cycle. In all cases, siliceous microfossil assemblages (diatoms and chrysophytes) change markedly and directionally, with regional nuances. These stratigraphic fingerprints begin to appear in the sediment record after AD 1850, but accelerate in pulses between AD 1950 and 1970 and again after AD 1980. Our review indicates that recent environmental changes associated with humankind's dominance of key global biogeochemical cycles are sufficiently pervasive to be imprinted on the sediment record of remote lakes. Moreover, these changes are of sufficient magnitude to conclude that the Holocene has effectively ended, and that the concept of Anthropocene more aptly describes current planetary dynamics. The synthesis of these observations pertains directly to ongoing discussions concerning the eventual formalization of a new stratigraphic boundary.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17-34
Number of pages18
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank numerous colleagues for providing data and ideas used in this compilation, including Jill Baron, Erin Doxsey-Whitfield, Sarah Enders, David Harris, Gordon Holtgrieve, Dominik Kulakowski, Neal Michelutti, Koren Nydick, Collin Quarrie, Mike Retelle, Daniel Schindler, Eric Steig, Paul Weidman, Al Werner, and Sybille Wunsam. Sediment dating was conducted by Jack Cornett and Janice Lardner (MyCore Scientific, Inc.) and Daniel Engstrom (St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Science Museum of Minnesota). Research over the years has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada , the Alberta Ingenuity Center for Water Resources , The U.S. National Science Foundation , The National Park Service (Department of the Interior) , and the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) . This paper is a contribution to the Loch Vale Watershed Long-term Ecological Research and Monitoring Program. Research in the Canadian Arctic was facilitated by the Nunavut Research Institute (Nunavummi Qaujisaqtulirijikkut).We thank Paul Wignall and Jan Zalasiewicz for thoughtful comments that substantially improved this presentation. This paper is dedicated to the memory of our colleague Eugene F. Stoermer (1934–2012), diatomist and limnologist, who pioneered the use of the term Anthropocene.

Copyright 2013 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Anthropocene
  • Diatoms
  • Holocene
  • Nitrogen stable isotopes
  • Palaeolimnology


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