Our ‘Technosphere’: 30 Trillion Tons of Man-Made Stuff

For the first time, scientists have estimated the weight of all of the structures, products and waste that humans have created.

Humans are notorious for building, buying and throwing away.

Now scientists have estimated the amount and diversity of stuff humans have accumulated, constructed, manufactured, mined, dredged, processed and wasted, and the number is staggering. If it could be weighed, it would total some 30 trillion tons. If it could be catalogued, it would require billions of different categories. If it could be spread evenly across the surface of the planet, it would create a layer several inches thick, each square yard weighing about 110 pounds.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your technosphere, the physical infrastructure and technological artifacts that not only support your very existence but are a result of it - a layer of crap so monumental and influential, it warrants its own geological term, putting it on par with Earth's four main spheres: the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere.

"The technosphere is one way to think, and I think it's quite a fruitful way to think, of the ways in which humans are impacting the Earth and in fact changing not just its ecology and biology and so forth but its geological processes," professor Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., told Seeker.

Zalasiewicz and his colleagues, including Peter Haff of Duke University who coined the term "technosphere," published their analysis this week in the journal Anthropocene Review.

Their work is part of a broader body of research that considers the notion that we've entered a new epoch called the Anthropocene, where human activity is the dominant force on the planet, altering its natural climate and environment.

WATCH VIDEO: Humanity's Epoch: The Anthropocene

The scientists decided to look at humanity's impact on the planet through a geological lens, in order to ask two simple questions: How big is it? How diverse is it? The answers provide some perspective of the scale of change people have of imposed upon the world especially within the last century, which is when they acquired the power to move such enormous amounts of material, Zalasiewicz said.

To arrive at their totals, they separated the technosphere into five different areas - urban, rural, subterranean, marine and aerial - and then estimated the area, thickness, density and mass for each based on existing data as well methods for collecting that data.

For example, although cities are planned, mapped and archived, the amount of materials and engineered substructures aren't systematically converted into geological terms or measurements that would be useful for this study. But archaeologists who look at the remains of ancient civilizations do have ways to measure and differentiate the urban layers from natural rock and mineral and their data is relevant to this study.

RELATED: Has the Anthropocene Epoch Arrived?

Much more can be said about the aerial technosphere, where atmospheric gases and particulates are monitored and measured. Carbon dioxide created from human activity weighs almost one trillion tons.

Measuring the diversity of the objects also required some educated guessing. They adopted the method that palaeontologists use measure the diversity of fossil organisms and refer to objects created by modern humans as "technofossils."

One such example could be a book. Currently there are about 130 million book titles since publishing began, with a million new publications created each year in the United States. If viewed through a palaeontologist's lens, each title would be as a distinct entity, because it would have a specific dimension, texture, pattern of printed words and number of pages. The same could be said for mobile phones, of which the 6.8 billion individual phones manufactured might be classed into hundreds if not thousands of different 'technospecies'.

Considering these examples and others, the scientists guess that number of technofossils is in the billions.

"We've put in a very preliminary estimate," Zalasiewicz said. "What's clear is that the figure is very big, bigger than the number of living species on Earth."

Pinpointing the exact weight of the technosphere and amount of technofossils is a challenge. Zalasiewicz says that the numbers are a broad brush stroke and encourages others to try to find different ways for measuring both.

Ultimately they'd like to link the technosphere, its scale and diversity, with the processes involved in creating and maintaining it.

It's just a beginning. But one can't help wondering if it's a beginning of an end.