The lunar Anthropocene: Humanity’s impact on the moon’s environment

Anthropologists and geologists at the University of Kansas have proposed the declaration of a new geological epoch for the moon – the Lunar Anthropocene. This epoch recognises the significant impact that humans have had on shaping the moon’s environment, starting from the historic landing of Luna 2, an unmanned spacecraft, on September 13, 1959.

The researchers argue that just as the concept of the Anthropocene on Earth explores the extent of human influence on our planet, it is crucial to acknowledge the Lunar Anthropocene and its commencement in 1959. By doing so, they hope to prevent significant damage or a delay in recognizing this new epoch until a visible lunar halo caused by human activities emerges, which would be too late.

The Lunar Anthropocene serves as a reminder that even celestial bodies like the moon are not immune to the influence of humankind.

Justin Holcomb, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at the Kansas Geological Survey, explains that the Lunar Anthropocene concept challenges the perception that the moon is an unchanging environment, barely impacted by humanity. He emphasises that cultural processes, such as the movement of sediments, or regolith, on the moon, are starting to surpass natural geological processes. The disturbance caused by rovers, landers, and human movement significantly alters the regolith, and with the ongoing space race, the lunar landscape will be unrecognizable in the next 50 years.

One of the main concerns highlighted by the researchers is the lack of “Leave No Trace” principles on the moon. Refuse from human missions, including discarded spacecraft components, human waste, scientific equipment, and various objects, are left behind, posing a threat to the delicate lunar environment. The moon’s exosphere, composed of dust, gas, and ice in permanently shadowed areas, can be affected by exhaust gas propagation from human activities.

To mitigate these deleterious effects, future missions must consider the preservation of lunar environments. The Lunar Anthropocene not only aims to raise awareness about humanity’s impact on the moon’s surface but also calls attention to the vulnerability of lunar sites with historical and anthropological value. Currently, there are no legal or policy protections against disturbance of these sites.

In addition to environmental concerns, the researchers emphasize the significance of lunar material and footprints as valuable resources and a part of humanity’s journey. They propose the concept of “space heritage,” which aims to catalog and preserve items such as rovers, flags, golf balls, and footprints on the moon’s surface. These imprints are seen as an extension of our species’ existence and hold archaeological and anthropological importance.

The concept of the Lunar Anthropocene not only captures the interest of planetary scientists but also seeks to engage archaeologists and anthropologists in discussions about planetary science. By recognizing our impact on the moon and preserving its historical artifacts, we can ensure that future generations can learn from and appreciate humanity’s remarkable journey beyond Earth.