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Scientists Have Calculated the Weight of All Man-Made Substances on the Planet

Presenting their findings in a new study, published in the most recent issue of Anthropocene Review, a group of researchers have calculated the weight of all man-made substances on Earth, including “houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, [and] discarded waste”, or what they call the “technosphere”.

According to researchers, smart phones have a fairly high potential of becoming technofossils in the future. Image credit: Maurizio Pesce via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

According to researchers, smart phones have a fairly high potential of becoming “technofossils” in the future. Image credit: Maurizio Pesce via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

The figure? 30 trillion tonnes, which amounts to more than 50 kilos for every square meter of the planetary surface.

This study has been made possible by decades-long investigations into the Anthropocene, a term coined by the biologist Eugene Stoermer, meaning the geological period that began in the twentieth century and is characterized by substantial human impact on the Earth and its inhabitants.

According to the study lead author Jan Zalasiewicz, hailing from University of Leicester, Department of Geology, the term “technosphere” was invented by Peter Haff, an environmental engineer at Duke University, highlighting the emergent properties and ecosystem-like behavior of technological development.

“Humans and human organizations 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,” explained Zalasiewicz.

Describing its scope, the authors of the study claim it stretches from above the Earth’s crust, as well as the subterranean world, and encompasses waste in the oceans, human-created carbon dioxide and space junk in orbit.

As a thought experiment, Zalasiewicz and his crew tried to imagine what the Earth would look like to future geologists:

“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 structure in some exceptionally preserved ancient fossils today.”

Study co-author Professor Mark Williams, also from the University of Leicester, claims the technosphere can now be said to have “budded off” the biosphere and is partly parasitic on it. Compared to the latter, it’s also very poor at recycling its own materials, which might be a barrier to its further success.

Professor Zalasiewicz added: “The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet.”

Sources: study, arstechnica.com, phys.org.