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Is there an isotopic signature of the anthropocene?

Dean, Jonathan R.; Leng, Melanie J; Mackay, Anson W


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Dr Jonathan Dean
Director of Admissions for Geography, Environmental Science & Earth Science | Lecturer in Quaternary Science

Melanie J Leng

Anson W Mackay


We consider whether the Anthropocene is recorded in the isotope geochemistry of the atmosphere, sediments, plants and ice cores, and the time frame during which any changes are recorded, presenting examples from the literature. Carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios have become more depleted since the 19th century, with the rate of change accelerating after ~ad 1950, linked to increased emissions from fossil fuel consumption and increased production of fertiliser. Lead isotope ratios demonstrate human pollution histories several millennia into the past, while sulphur isotopes can be used to trace the sources of acid rain. Radioisotopes have been detectable across the planet since the 1950s because of atmospheric nuclear bomb tests and can be used as a stratigraphic marker. We find there is isotopic evidence of widespread human impact on the global environment, but different isotopes have registered changes at different times and at different rates.


Dean, J. R., Leng, M. J., & Mackay, A. W. (2014). Is there an isotopic signature of the anthropocene?. Anthropocene Review, 1(3), 276-287.

Journal Article Type Review
Acceptance Date Apr 30, 2014
Online Publication Date Jul 15, 2014
Publication Date 2014-12
Deposit Date Feb 22, 2020
Publicly Available Date Mar 31, 2020
Journal Anthropocene Review
Print ISSN 2053-0196
Electronic ISSN 2053-020X
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 1
Issue 3
Pages 276-287
Keywords Anthropocene; Carbon; Human impact; Isotopes; Lead; Nitrogen; Radioisotopes; Suess effect; Sulphur
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This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (

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