Scientists Think We’ve Officially Entered the ‘Lunar Anthropocene’

By Tim Newcomb,
Published by Popular Mechanics, 28 December 2023

Welcome to a new moon epoch, y’all.

  • Researchers believe that a new epoch may have begun on the Moon back in 1959, when humans first affected the surface.
  • Dubbed the “Lunar Anthropocene,” the epoch has now seen over 100 spacecraft visit the Moon, and humans are becoming a dominant force in shaping the surface.
  • It is yet to be seen how exactly growing human influence will shape our natural satellite.

When humans get involved in places they weren’t invited, things start to change. The Moon is no different.

A team of researchers at the University of Kansas believes that human involvement—including the more than 100 spacecraft interactions we have had with our natural satellite over the past 64 years—makes us one of the most dominant forces shaping the Moon.

That’s enough, they believe, to declare a new epoch on the Moon—the “Lunar Anthropocene.”

The researchers recently published a paper detailing this proposal in the journal Nature Geoscience. In it, they highlight the fact that the Moon is not the unchanging environment barely impacted by humanity that we sometimes think it to be. Since the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 spacecraft first hit the surface in September of 1959, humans have played a key role in the evolution of our closest cosmic companion.

“This idea is much the same as the discussion of the Anthropocene on Earth—the exploration of how much humans have impacted our planet,” Justin Holcomb, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “The consensus is on Earth the Anthropocene began at some point in the past, whether hundreds of thousands of years ago or in the 1950s. Similarly, on the Moon, we argue the Lunar Anthropocene already has commenced, but we want to prevent massive damage or a delay of its recognition until we can measure a significant lunar halo cause by human activities, which would be too late.”

The team says that, with over 100 spacecraft touching the Moon—sometimes crash-landing, and sometimes bringing actual humans to the surface—there’s been enough interaction to signify a geological epoch.

“In the context of the new space race, the lunar landscape will be entirely different in 50 years,” Holcomb said, noting how human involvement is already moving sediments and significantly disturbing the surface. “Multiple countries will be present, leading to numerous challenges.”

Holcomb added that the outdoor community’s mantra of “leave no trace” doesn’t exist on the Moon. The list of items already brought to and left on the surface by humans is long, though the abandoned spacecraft are far and away the most impactful in terms of size. The study’s authors claim that various aspects of the Moon—including the delicate exosphere composed of dust and gas, and any ice found in permanently shadowed areas—are susceptible to exhaust gas propagation. “Future missions,” they wrote, “must consider mitigating deleterious effects on lunar environments.”

The research team hopes to accomplish multiple goals by declaring the Lunar Anthropocene. They want to call attention to the vulnerability of lunar sites, especially considering the current lack of legal or policy protections against destructive disturbance of the Moon. They also want to ensure that each human interaction with and impact on the satellite is well chronicled, and aim to work with archeologists and anthropologists along the way to ensure that recording.

By cataloging each footprint on the Moon’s surface—not to mention the presence of rovers, golf balls, and the left-behind bags of human waste—we could hope to could preserve a detailed record of human interaction.

“As archaeologists, we perceive footprints on the Moon as an extension of humanity’s journey out of Africa, a pivotal milestone in our species’ existence,” Holcomb said. “These imprints are intertwined with the overarching narrative of evolution.”

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