Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Geologic Time The Story of a Changing Earth
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The Holocene
Climate Change and Variability
Impact of Human Development
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Impact of Human Development
The Holocene has another unique characteristic as well. It is during this time that humans become an important factor in the processes of Earth history. Human development has already left a lasting imprint on the geologic record, and it will likely continue to do so for some time. To describe these effects, geologists use terms such as “anthropogenic sediment” and “anthropogenic geomorphology.” Examples include changes in sediment deposition from dam-building and river diversion, leveling of topographic highs and infilling of lows, as well as attempted stabilization of variable features such as barrier islands.

The archeological record also attests to human adaptations to a changing climate during the Holocene. Viking settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland occurred during a warm, wet phase in Scandinavia recorded around AD 900-1000. During this same time interval, however, Mayan settlements in the tropical regions of Yucatán and Guatemala were being abandoned because of unfavorable climatic conditions. In Italy, Greece, and Spain the warming trend during Roman times initiated higher rates of sediment accumulation in many rivers, which resulted in the burial of Roman settlements under meters of silt. Fossils and archeological remains on islands such as New Zealand, Madagascar, Easter Island, and the Hawaiian Islands document the sudden extinction of many animal species along with profound changes in vegetation that followed the invasion of these islands by humans.

Most of these processes continue today, often at an accelerated pace. As humans increasingly travel between continents, formerly isolated animals and plants have opportunities to come into contact with one another. Often the results are devastating, particularly for island organisms that have few predator defenses. Anthropogenic changes in Earth's atmosphere are ongoing, with most of the impact yet to be felt.


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