Many of the isotope techniques we apply to ancient Earth oxygenation studies are also powerful tools for examining diverse modern systems. High precision isotope analyses can be used to study human impact on the environment because isotope abundances in industrial materials often differ from those in natural materials. Anbarites are currently studying iron isotopes in marine aerosols as a way of differentiating natural from anthropogenic sources of this vital nutrient to the oceans, and mercury isotopes as a tool to detect pollution from compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Isotope studies of modern systems can also shed light on the ancient Earth. Anbarites are studying isotope ratios in meromictic Green Lake, in New York. The lake's turquoise color comes from high levels of calcium carbonate suspended in the water. Green Lake is deep and highly saline, and supports a population of purple sulfur bacteria. PhD Xinming Chen is studying Mo and U isotope fractionations in this system as a proxy for the early Earth environment.
The future of our planet is shaped by choices we make today. We live in the Anthropocene – the Age of Humans. In this new epoch in Earth’s history, human activity is emerging as one of the most important Earth systems, rivaling and stressing the other natural systems that govern our planet’s habitability. Today, we are impacting the Earth inadvertently, and the unintended consequences of our actions raise the specter of dystopian futures. However, humans also have the potential to design and manage Earth’s future at a planetary scale. We envision a thriving future in which humanity addresses climate change and other planetary-scale problems (e.g., biodiversity loss, air pollution, soil erosion) through effective management at global as well as local scales.
Dr. Anbar co-directs PlanetWorks, a network of ASU academic units, centers, and individual faculty with a shared vision that we can create the future we want for our planet. PlanetWorks brings together researchers from the natural and social sciences to discuss and implement engineering solutions to benefit humanity and the planet.