Earth’s technosphere, which comprises of all the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive on the planet, now weighs an enormous 30 trillion tonnes, a new study has found.
An international team led by geologists at University of Leicester in the UK has made the first estimate of the sheer size of the physical structure of the planet’s technosphere. “The technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly,” said Professor Mark Williams from University of Leicester.
It is comprised of all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive on the planet – from houses, factories and farms to computer systems, smartphones and CDs, to the waste in landfills and spoil heaps.
Researchers suggest that the bulk of the planet’s technosphere is staggering in scale, with some 30 trillion tonnes representing a mass of more than 50 kilogrammes for every square metre of the Earth’s surface.
“Humans and human organisations form part of it, too – although we are not always as much in control as we think we are, as the technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows – and humans have to help keep it going to survive,” Zalasiewicz said.
The Anthropocene concept – a proposed epoch highlighting the impact humans have made to the planet – has provided an understanding that humans have greatly changed the Earth. “The technosphere can be said to have budded off the biosphere and arguably is now at least partly parasitic on it. At its current scale the technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly,” Williams said.
“Compared with the biosphere, though, it is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show. This might be a barrier to its further success – or halt it altogether,” said Williams.
The researchers believe the technosphere is some measure of the extent to which we have reshaped our planet. “There is more to the technosphere than just its mass,” said Colin Waters from the Leicester’s Department of Geology. “It has enabled the production of an enormous array of material objects, from simple tools and coins, to ballpoint pens, books and CDs, to the most sophisticated computers and smartphones.
“Many of these, if entombed in strata, can be preserved into the distant geological future as ‘technofossils’ that will help characterise and date the Anthropocene,” said Waters.
If technofossils were to be classified as palaeontologists classify normal fossils – based on their shape, form and texture – the study suggests that the number of individual types of ‘technofossil’ now on the planet likely reaches a billion or more – thus far outnumbering the numbers of biotic species now living.
The study was published in the journal Anthropocene Review.