Geologists: Total Mass of Earth’s Technosphere is about 30 Trillion Tons

by johnsmith

A multinational team of geologists has made the first estimate of the sheer size of the physical structure of Earth’s technosphere — suggesting that its mass approximates to 30 trillion tons. The research is published in the Anthropocene Review.

Earth’s technosphere now weighs some 30 trillion tons -- a mass of more than 50 kg for every sq.m of the planet’s surface, according to Jan Zalasiewicz et al.

Earth’s technosphere now weighs some 30 trillion tons — a mass of more than 50 kg for every sq.m of the planet’s surface, according to Jan Zalasiewicz et al.

The technosphere is the idea of Peter Haff, a professor of geology and civil engineering at Duke University and co-author of the paper.

“The technosphere comprises our complex social structures together with the physical infrastructure and technological artifacts supporting energy, information and material flows that enable the system to work, including entities as diverse as power stations, transmission lines, roads and buildings, farms, plastics, tools, airplanes, ballpoint pens and transistors,” Prof. Haff and his colleagues explained.

“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 — and humans have to help keep it going to survive,” added lead author Prof. Jan Zalasiewicz, from the University of Leicester, UK.

According to the team, the planet’s technosphere now weighs some 30 trillion tons — a mass of more than 50 kg for every square meter of the Earth’s surface.

“Highly preliminary estimates of the major components of the Earth System co-opted into the technosphere indicate a mass of 30 trillion tons, equivalent to > 50 kg/m2 of the Earth’s surface,” the researchers said.

“The total is 5 orders of magnitude greater than the standing biomass of humans presently sustained by this construct and its reshaping of the biosphere.”

The researchers believe the technosphere is some measure of the extent to which we have reshaped our planet.

“While the long-term development of the technosphere remains uncertain, its scale and accelerating diversification of form means that it already represents a distinctive new component at a planetary scale,” they said.

“The components of the technosphere co-evolve rapidly, with complex and frequently changing lead–lag relationships predicated by additional constructs reserved to the human species, such as behaviors modulated by markets’ supply and demand.”

“The technosphere overlaps broadly, and interacts intimately, with the other spheres, an example being humans and their domestic animals and cultivated plants, which now make up much of the biosphere and are embedded within the technosphere, while humans are also the generators of the technosphere.”

“This is analogous to water being an essential component in both the hydrosphere and atmosphere.”

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 may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet,” Prof. Zalasiewicz said.

According to co-author Prof. Colin Waters, from the University of Leicester, there is more to the technosphere than just its mass.

“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,” Prof. Waters said.

“Many of these, if entombed in strata, can be preserved into the distant geological future as ‘technofossils’ that will help characterize and date the Anthropocene.”

If technofossils were to be classified as paleontologists 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.

“Technofossil diversity already exceeds known estimates of biological diversity as measured by richness, far exceeds recognized fossil diversity, and may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history,” the scientists said.


Jan Zalasiewicz et al. Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective. Anthropocene Review, published online November 28, 2016; doi: 10.1177/2053019616677743

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