The moon has been altered by human activity. Are we in a 'Lunar Anthropocene?'

someone in a spacesuit on the surface of the moon stands, facing left, toward an American flag.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon facing a U.S. flag during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

When the Soviet Luna 2 probe crash-landed on the lunar surface in 1959, it became the first human-made object to touch the moon. And, according to a trio of academics, Luna 2’s impact also marked the dawn of a new age in the moon’s natural history: an age where humans began to alter the world in unprecedented ways. 

They call it the "Lunar Anthropocene."

Their proposed moon age is a mirror to Earth's Anthropocene, a geological epoch defined by the timeframe within which human activity started warping our world. The Anthropocene has no official recognition — and even its proponents still debate when it truly began — but it's impossible to deny that, through everything, humans are permanently changing the planet. And we're doing it in an incredible amount of ways, from hunting species to extinction and pumping greenhouse gases into the air, to illuminating a once-dark night with electric lights and cutting down trees to make room for highways. 

Related: Nuclear bombs set off new geological epoch in the 1950s, scientists say

In that spirit, academics now argue that humans have become the dominant force in shaping the moon's environment as well. Even though no humans permanently live on the moon, the authors argue that this Lunar Anthropocene began in 1959 when Luna arrived with a bang. Ever since then, we have moved the lunar regolith; we have left landers, flags, scientific experiments, golf balls, and human excrement.

"On the moon, we argue the Lunar Anthropocene already has commenced, but we want to prevent massive damage or a delay of its recognition," Justin Holcomb, an archaeologist at the Kansas Geological Survey, in a statement.

If a few scattered missions create a Lunar Anthropocene, then what comes next will be far, far more drastic. Humans are planning to send a new wave of missions to the moon in hopes of establishing a lasting presence and exploiting its resources.

Holcomb believes that space exploration on the moon should be protected as cultural heritage; he thinks recognizing the Lunar Anthropocene is key to preserving both those artifacts. "The concept of a Lunar Anthropocene aims to raise awareness and contemplation regarding our impact on the lunar surface, as well as our influence on the preservation of historical artifacts," he said.

The authors published their idea as a comment in the journal Nature Geosciences on Dec. 8.

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Rahul Rao
Contributing Writer

Rahul Rao is a graduate of New York University's SHERP and a freelance science writer, regularly covering physics, space, and infrastructure. His work has appeared in Gizmodo, Popular Science, Inverse, IEEE Spectrum, and Continuum. He enjoys riding trains for fun, and he has seen every surviving episode of Doctor Who. He holds a masters degree in science writing from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) and earned a bachelors degree from Vanderbilt University, where he studied English and physics. 

  • Jan Steinman
    We have even seeded the moon with the multi-cellular life form that is most likely to survive such an environment! There are thousands of tardigrades on the moon!
  • Maury Wood
    There is brand new wonderful video on PBS SpaceTime about the earth's Anthropocene epoch, in which Matt O'Dowd claims that all of humanity's impact on Earth (everything we know) will be reduced to just few millimeters of sedimentary rock over geologic time, due to subduction and other geologic dynamics :

  • Jan Steinman
    Maury Wood said:
    all of humanity's impact on Earth (everything we know) will be reduced to just few millimeters of sedimentary rock over geologic time…

    Yes! Almost all traces of humanity will be reduced to a thin, greasy line in the strata. And it won't even have any iridium in it.

    Doesn't that make you feel special?

    I only hope that whatever comes after us — sentient bonobos, canids, cetaceans, whatever — finds enough human artifacts to serve as a warning sign!

    At least, they won't have the benefit of some 200,000,000 years of stored sunlight. We've used all the low-hanging fruit up, and future sentient creatures aren't likely to be able to access "tight" oil without bootstrapping from the early gushers, like humans did.
  • OrionEridanus
    Lunar Anthropocene is being announced way too early.
    Natural processes turnover the lunar regolith on order of once every 81,000 years ( )

    That is 180 mi.² per year. Generously assuming human driven regolith turnover is 100 m² /year, humans are altering the surface at a rate much less than < 1 millionth as much.

    Announcing the lunar Anthropocene is like calling Amazon clearcutting the Pinewood Derby Catastrophe, from the combined impact on lumber demand by cub scouts making pinewood derby cars
  • Classical Motion
    What can been harmed or interfered with on the moon? We should take all kinds of life there and see what happens. Try plants and fungi too. Root it in the soil. I'll bet fungi make it. Stubborn stuff.

    It might turn out that living on the moon might be quite dangerous for us. There is no shield. We'll never know until we live there a while. And at this rate, it'll be another fifty years before we do.

    What better environment----to study "space"? Space with gravity......even. Gravity for us and only space to observe and measure with. What a lab.

    We don't need new tech and new engineering, we just need dependable, repeatable engineering.