Anthropogenic disturbance of element cycles at the Earth's surface. Academic Article uri icon


  • The extent to which humans are modifying Earth's surface chemistry can be quantified by comparing total anthropogenic element fluxes with their natural counterparts (Klee and Graedel, 2004). We quantify anthropogenic mass transfer of 77 elements from mining, fossil fuel burning, biomass burning, construction activities, and human apportionment of terrestrial net primary productivity, and compare it to natural mass transfer from terrestrial and marine net primary productivity, riverine dissolved and suspended matter fluxes to the ocean, soil erosion, eolian dust, sea-salt spray, cosmic dust, volcanic emissions, and for helium, hydrodynamic escape from the Earth's atmosphere. We introduce an approach to correct for losses during industrial processing of elements belonging to geochemically coherent groups, and explicitly incorporate uncertainties of element mass fluxes through Monte Carlo simulations. We find that at the Earth's surface anthropogenic fluxes of iridium, osmium, helium, gold, ruthenium, antimony, platinum, palladium, rhenium, rhodium and chromium currently exceed natural fluxes. For these elements mining is the major factor of anthropogenic influence, whereas petroleum burning strongly influences the surficial cycle of rhenium. Our assessment indicates that if anthropogenic contributions to soil erosion and eolian dust are considered, anthropogenic fluxes of up to 62 elements surpass their corresponding natural fluxes.

publication date

  • August 21, 2012