Carnegie Science – Deep Carbon Observatory, Washington DC
Humans: The greatest contributor to diversity of minerals since oxygen; Officially recognized minerals, formed by nature: More than 5,000; Formed due to human activity: 208
Human industry and ingenuity has done more to diversify and distribute minerals on Earth than any development since the rise of oxygen over 2.2 billion years ago, experts say in a paper published today.
The work bolsters the scientific argument to officially designate a new geological time interval distinguished by the pervasive impact of human activities: the Anthropocene Epoch.
In the paper, published by American Mineralogist, a team led by Robert Hazen of the Carnegie Institution for Science identifies for the first time a group of 208 mineral species that originated either principally or exclusively due to human activities. That’s almost 4% of the roughly 5,200 minerals officially recognized by the International Mineralogical Association (IMA).
Most of the recognized minerals attributed to human activities originated through mining — in ore dumps, through the weathering of slag, formed in tunnel walls, mine water or timbers, or through mine fires.
Six were found on the walls of smelters; three formed in a geothermal piping system.
Some minerals formed due to human actions can also occur naturally. Three in that category were discovered on corroded lead artifacts aboard a Tunisian shipwreck, two on bronze artifacts in Egypt, and two on tin artifacts in Canada. Four were discovered at prehistoric sacrificial burning sites in the Austrian mountains.
Unparalleled pace of diversification
According to the paper, the first great ‘punctuation event’ in the history of Earth’s mineral diversity occurred more than 2 billion years ago when the increase of oxygen in the atmosphere — ‘the Great Oxidation’ — gave rise to as many as two-thirds of the more than 5,200 mineral species officially recognized today.
Says Dr. Hazen, who co-wrote the paper with Edward Grew of the University of Maine, and Marcus Origlieri and Robert Downs of the University of Arizona: “Mineral evolution has continued throughout Earth’s history. It has taken 4.5 billion years for combinations of elements to meet naturally on Earth at a specific location, depth and temperature, and to form into the more than 5,200 minerals officially recognized today. The majority of these have arisen since the Great Oxidation event 2 billion years ago. ”
“Within that collection of 5,200 are 208 minerals produced directly or indirectly by human activities, mostly since the mid-1700s, and we believe that others continue to be formed at that same relatively blazing pace. To imagine 250 years relative to 2 billion years, that’s the difference between the blink of an eye (one third of a second) and one month.”
“Simply put, we live in an era of unparalleled inorganic compound diversification,” says Dr. Hazen. “Indeed, if the Great Oxidation eons ago was a ‘punctuation event’ in Earth’s history, the rapid and extensive geological impact of the Anthropocene is an exclamation mark.”
A mineral species is defined as a naturally occurring crystalline compound that has a unique combination chemical composition and crystal structure. As of February, 2017, the IMA had approved 5,208 species (see rruff.info/ima for a complete list).
The authors of the recent paper argue that with so many minerals and mineral-like compounds owing their origin to human activities, “a more comprehensive understanding and analysis of the mineralogical nature of the Anthropocene Epoch is warranted.”
Humanity has had a major impact on diversity and distribution in the mineral world in three principal ways, according to the paper:
1 a) Manufacturing synthetic “mineral-like” compounds, and b) causing minerals to form as an unintentional byproduct of human activity
a) Directly creating synthetic mineral-like compounds such as YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet) crystals used in lasers, silicon “chips” for semi-conductors, carbide grits for abrasives, and various specialty metals and alloys for magnets, machine parts, and tools. Other examples include bricks, earthenware, porcelain, glass and limestone-based Portland cement — the world’s most common form of cement, used in concrete, mortar, stucco and grout — a combination of calcium silicates, calcium sulfates, and other compounds
b) Indirectly contributing to the formation of new minerals through mining, with new compounds appearing on mine walls or in mine dumps, for example. Of special interest are minerals found associated with ancient lead-zinc mining localities, including some possibly dating from the Bronze Age, and others from as far back as 300 AD.?
2) Large scale movement of rocks, sediments, and minerals
In addition to creating new compounds, human activities such as mining and the transport of stone blocks, rocks, sediments, and minerals from their original location to help build roads, bridges, waterways, monuments, kitchen counters, and other human infrastructure, rivals in scale nature’s redistribution such as via glaciers.
Mining operations, meanwhile, have stripped the near-surface environment of ores and fossil fuels, leaving large open pits, tunnel complexes, and, in the case of strip mining, sheared off mountaintops.
Road cuts, tunnels, and embankments represent further distinctively human planetary modifications.
3) Global redistribution of highly valued natural minerals
Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and a host of semi-precious stones, accompanied by concentrations of gold, silver, and platinum, are found in shops and households in every corner of the globe.
Collections of fine mineral specimens juxtapose mineral species that would not occur naturally in combination. From modest beginner collector sets of more common minerals to the world’s greatest museums, these collections, if buried in the stratigraphic record and subsequently unearthed in the distant future, “would reveal unambiguously the passion of humans for the beauty and wonder of the mineral kingdom,” the paper says.
New compounds forming
Says Dr. Downs: “Given humanity’s pervasive influences on the environment, there must be hundreds of as yet unrecognized ‘minerals’ in old mines, smelters, abandoned buildings, and other sites. Meanwhile, new suites of compounds may now be forming in, for example, solid waste dumps where old batteries, electronics, appliances, and other high-tech discards are exposed to weathering and alteration.”
Adds Dr. Origlieri: “In the sediment layers left behind from our age, future mineralogists will find plentiful building materials such as bricks, cinder blocks, and cement, metal alloys such as steel, titanium, and aluminum, along with many lethal radioactive byproducts of the nuclear age. They might also marvel at some beautiful manufactured gemstones, like cubic zirconia, moissanite, synthetic rubies, and many others.”
Says Dr. Grew: “These minerals and mineral-like compounds will be preserved in the geological record as a distinctive, globally-distributed horizon of crystalline novelty–a persistent marker that marks our age as different from all that came before.”
Some anthropogenic minerals wouldn’t be officially recognized today
Calclacite, described by a Belgium-based scientist in 1959, and which originated in an old oak storage cabinet for mineral specimens at the Royal Museum of Natural History, Brussels, is an officially recognized mineral that wouldn’t qualify today; in 1998 the IMA decided to disallow any substance “made by Man.”
Other recognized anthropogenic minerals in this category include several slag-related minerals as well as a pair from Russia, niobocarbide and tantalcarbide, which some experts believe may have been a hoax — “a laboratory product … deliberately passed off as a natural material” in the early 1900s.
Though unlikely to pass scrutiny today, says Dr. Grew, previously recognized minerals such as these, rather than being invalidated, have been allowed to remain in the IMA catalog.
The IMA did agree to recognize a mineral in cases “in which human intervention in the creation of a substance is less direct.”
The origin of up to 29 forms of carbon: humanity
Of the 208 human-mediated minerals identified by the Deep Carbon Observatory researchers, 29 contain carbon.
Origins and forms, along with movements and quantities, are four themes of the DCO (deepcarbon.net). Dr. Hazen is the DCO’s Executive Director.
Now we know that as many as 29 carbon minerals originated with human activities, of which 14 have no recorded natural occurrences. It is fair, therefore, to consider the 14 as the youngest carbon mineral species. Among the 14, candidates for the very youngest include a dozen minerals related to uranium mines.
The mineral andersonite, for example, is found in the tunnels of certain abandoned uranium mines in the American Southwest. At places along the tunnel walls, sandstone becomes saturated with water that contains elements that form a beautiful crust of yellow, orange and green crystals. Prized for its bright green fluorescent glow under a black light, a good sample of andersonite will fetch up to $500 from a collector.
Another notable carbon-bearing mineral is tinnunculite, determined to be a product of hot gases reacting with the excrement of the Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) at a burning coal mine in Kopeisk, Chelyabinsk, Russia. It was subsequently discovered also on Russia’s Mt. Rasvumchorr — an entirely natural occurrence.
Tinnunculite is one of eight new minerals identified as part of the Deep Carbon Observatory’s Carbon Mineral Challenge, launched in 2015 to track down an estimated 145 carbon-bearing minerals yet to be formally recognized. The IMA recognized tinnunculite as a mineral in 2015.
29 anthropogenic carbon-related minerals
Human-mediated phases with no confirmed natural occurrences
Recovered from ore dumps: wheatleyite, widgiemoolthalite
Associated with mine tunnel walls: albrechtschraufite, canavesite, je�ekite, línekite
Associated with mine dump fires, including coal mine dumps: acetamide, hoelite, kladnoite
Interaction with mine timbers or leaf litter: paceite, hoganite
Formed in storage cabinets in museums: calclacite
Allegedly from placers, possibly a hoax: niobocarbide, tantalcarbide
Inadvertently produced or human-mediated minerals, occurring or suspected to occur in nature
Recovered from dumps, including ore and serpentinite: hydromagnesite, lansfordite, nesquehonite
Alteration of mine tunnel walls: andersonite, bayleyite, swartzite, znucalite
Associated with mine fires (not coal mines): shannonite
Associated with coal mine and dump fires; Sublimation from gas escape from coal fires: dypingite, ravatite, tinnunculite
Other “post-mine” minerals or context undefined: rabbittite barstowite, phosgenite
Alteration of lead artifacts: barstowite, phosgenite
Alteration of bronze artifacts: chalconatronite
Although yet to be confirmed by the International Union of Geological Sciences, there is growing advocacy for formal recognition of the “Anthropocene Epoch,” the successor of the Holocene Epoch, which began some 11,500 years ago when the most recent ice age glaciers began to retreat. Epochs are normally separated by significant changes in the rock layers to which they correspond. A 35-member Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) recommended formal designation of the epoch Anthropocene to the International Geological Congress on 29 August 2016. It may be several years before a final decision is reached.?
About the authors:
- Robert Hazen is Senior Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, and Executive Director of the Deep Carbon Observatory
- Edward Grew is a Research Professor, Earth and Climate Sciences, University of Maine
- Marcus Origlieri is a Research Associate, University of Arizona
- Robert Downs is a Professor of Geosciences specializing in mineralogy and crystallography, University of Arizona
Carnegie Science seeks to encourage discovery and the application of knowledge to the improvement of humankind. carnegiescience.edu
The Deep Carbon Observatory is an international network of nearly 1000 multi-disciplinary scientists committed to investigating the quantities, movements, forms, and origins of carbon in deep Earth. deepcarbon.net
Anthropogenic minerals, photos:
Metamunirite (NaV O3), Big GypsumValley, San Miguel County, Colorado, USA. Credit RRUFF. Download: http://bit.
Abhurite [Sn21O6(OH)14Cl16] from the wreck of the SS Cheerful, 14 miles NNW of St. Ives, Cornwall, England. Credit RRUFF. Download: http://bit.
Simonkolleite [Zn5(OH)8Cl2·H2O] found on a copper mining artifact, Rowley mine, Maricopa County, Arizona. Credit RRUFF. Download: http://bit.
Fiedlerite [Pb3Cl4F(OH)·H2O] from a slag site, Greece. Credit RRUFF. Download: http://bit.
Nealite [Pb4Fe(AsO3)2Cl4·2H2O] from slag site, Greece. Credit RRUFF. Download: http://bit.
Chalconatronite [Na2Cu(CO3)2·3H2O], Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada. Credit RRUFF. Download: http://bit.
Andersonite: Hillside Mine, Arizona. Credit: Trevor Boyd/Causeway Minerals. Download:http://bit.
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Washington Post, USA
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Los Angeles Times, USA
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Discover Magazine, USA
Human-Caused Minerals: Another Sure Sign of the Anthropocene?, (click here)
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Scientific American, USA
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Popular Science, USA
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Popular Mechanics, USA
Humanity Has Created Thousands of Artificial Minerals, (click here)
Newsy, USA (90 second report)
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Nature World News, United States
Human Activity Ushers in the Planet’s Next Epoch Starting From a Spike in New Minerals, (click here)
New minerals back idea of man-made epoch for Earth – study, (click here)
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BBC Mundo, UK
Vertederos, minas abandonadas y cajones de museos, los lugares donde los humanos hemos provocado que se creen nuevos minerales, (click here)
Daily Mail, UK
Human impact on the planet’s chemistry has created a catalogue of new minerals in ‘the blink of an eye’, say scientists, (click here)
The Guardian, UK
Rock of ages: impact of manmade crystals defining new geological epoch – study, (click here)
New Scientist, UK
Rock solid evidence of Anthropocene seen in 208 minerals we made, (click here)
Business Insider, UK
Earth entered a new epoch on July 16, 1945 — and humans have left behind more than 200 new minerals to prove it, (click here)
International Business Times, UK
Anthropocene: The 208 crystals that don’t exist anywhere else in the universe, (click here)
Chemistry World, UK
Human-made minerals add to evidence for Anthopocene epoch, (click here)
Press Trust of India
208 new human-caused minerals point to ‘Anthropocene Epoch’, (click here)
东方网 (Oriental Network), China
人类活动“一夜间”致200多种新矿物产生, (Human activities “one night” produced more than 200 kinds of new minerals)(click here)
RAI Novosti newswire, Russia
Люди меняют геологию Земли: 208 новых минералов имеют антропогенное происхождение (People change the geology of the Earth: 208 new minerals are of anthropogenic origin), (click here)
Geologie: Menschheit ließ 200 Mineralien neu entstehen (Humanity has newly created 200 minerals), (click here)
Berliner Morgenpost, Germany
Sind neue Mineralien ein Beweis für ein neues Erdzeitalter? (Are new minerals a proof of a new era?), (click here); 2nd story:
Der Mensch lässt neue Mineralien entstehen (Human beings create new minerals), (click here)
Die Presse, Austria
Mineralien des Menschenzeitalters (Minerals of the Human Age), (click here)
Science.ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation), Austria
Ein Argument mehr für das „Anthropozän“ (A further argument for the “Anthropocene”), (click here)
El País, Spain
Los humanos han creado ya 208 nuevos minerales (Humans have already created 208 new minerals), (click here)
Agencia EFE, Spain
Científicos catalogan 208 minerales creados por la actividad humana (Scientists catalog 208 minerals created by human activity), (click here)
Europa Press, Spain
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Confirmación del Antropoceno: El hombre ya es la segunda fuerza que ha creado más minerales (Confirmation of the Anthropocene: Man is already the second force that has created more minerals), (click here)
La Vanguardia, Spain
Los humanos hemos creado 208 minerales que no existían en la Tierra, (click here)
Corriere Della Sera, Italy
Uomo ha segnato nuova era geologica, (click here)
La Scienze, Italy
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Huffington Post, Italy
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Nous sommes entrés dans l’anthropocène, affirment des minéralogistes (We have entered the anthropocene, say mineralogists), (click here)
Több száz új ásványt hoztunk létre, (click here)
Ihmiskunta synnyttänyt 208 aivan uutta mineraalia – vauhti hämmästyttävää (Mankind created 208 completely new minerals – an astonishing pace), (click here)
Το 4% των Ορυκτών της Γης Έχει Δημιουργηθεί Χάρη στους Ανθρώπους (4% of the Earth’s Minerals were created thanks to Humans), (click here)
Nederlands Dagblad, Netherlands
Mens zorgde voor nieuwe mineralen (Man brought new minerals), (click here)
Versteende vogelpoep is gepromoveerd tot mineraal (Fossilized bird droppings promoted to mineral), (click here)
We’ve created 208 new minerals: Time for a new, human-influenced Anthropocene epoch?, (click here)
Human activity creates 208 new mineral species, (click here)
ABC Radio, Australia
Human activity helps create hundreds of new minerals, (click here)
Cosmos Magazine, Australia
Humans have created at least 208 new types of mineral, (click here)
O Globo, Brazil
Atividade humana criou 208 novos minerais no planeta, (click here)
O Globo TV, Brazil (two minute report)
Ação do homem pode dar início a nova era geológica, revelam cientistas (Man’s action may usher in new geological era, scientists reveal), (click here)
El Mercurio, Chile
Al menos 208 minerales no fueron creados por la naturaleza, sino que por los humanos (At least 208 minerals were not created by nature, but by humans), (click here)
Al Maghrib Today, Morocco
أبحاثجديدةتكشفأنالإنسانأثرعلى (New research reveals that the human impact on the chemistry of the planet), (click here)
Báo Mới, Viet Nam
Con người khiến Trái Đất bùng nổ đa dạng khoáng sản (Humans create boom of Earth’s mineral variety), (click here)
208 mineralı insanlar yaradıb – TƏDQİQAT (People have created 208 minerals – RESEARCH), (click here)
Full coverage summary, click here
News release in full, click here