Time to declare the Lunar Anthropocene?

Humanity’s impact on the Moon should be formally declared, a group of American geologists and anthropologists say, as activity continues to increase towards establishing permanent bases on the lunar surface.

In a comment published in the journal Nature Geosciences, the authors from the University of Kansas argue humanity is now the dominant force shaping the future of the Moon, both through crewed landings and uncrewed exploratory activity.

There has been an increase in Moon missions from several national space agencies. In August, India joined the US, Soviet Union and China as the only nations to successfully land a vehicle on the lunar surface. Russia’s Luna 25 crashed into the Moon’s south pole around the same time. Japan will attempt to land its ‘SLIM’ mission in the coming months.

An astronaut on the moon
Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt collecting samples of lunar soil in 1972. Credit: NASA

Whether safe landings and rover explorations, unsuccessful collisions, remote soil sampling or putting people back on the Moon’s chalk-white regolith, the impact of humanity on our planet’s closest neighbour is undeniable.

“Our goal is to dispel the lunar-static myth and emphasise the importance of our impact, not only in the past but ongoing and in the future,” says Dr Justin Holcomb, a postdoctoral researcher with the Kansas Geological Survey.

“The idea is much the same as the discussion of the Anthropocene on Earth — the exploration of how much humans have impacted our planet.

“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.”

Holcomb hopes that by attaching the Anthropocene label to the post-human Moon, agencies and governments conducting work on its surface will better appreciate the importance of managing the impact.

That extends not only to artefacts left on the Moon by astronauts, but the disturbances caused by operating machinery on the surface as well. Rather than the Moon being shaped by cosmic processes like meteoroid impacts or its own geological changes, its activity from Earth’s inhabitants that is now, quite literally, leaving a mark in the regolith.

Some of these cultural histories are also worth preserving, just as archaeologists preserve markers of human activity on Earth. 

“Cultural processes are starting to outstrip the natural background of geological processes on the moon,” Holcomb says. “When we consider the impact of rovers, landers and human movement, they significantly disturb the regolith. In the context of the new space race, the lunar landscape will be entirely different in 50 years. Multiple countries will be present, leading to numerous challenges.”

“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. These imprints are intertwined with the overarching narrative of evolution. It’s within this framework we seek to capture the interest of not only planetary scientists but also archaeologists and anthropologists who may not typically engage in discussions about planetary science.”

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