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Formal subdivision of the Quaternary System/Period: Past, present, and future

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Head, MJ 
Gibbard, PL 


The Quaternary System/Period represents the past 2.58 million years and is officially subdivided into the Pleistocene and Holocene series/epochs, with the base of the Holocene assigned an age of 11,700 calendar years before AD 2000. The two lowest stages of the Pleistocene, the Gelasian (base 2.58 Ma) and the Calabrian (base 1.80 Ma), have been ratified and these effectively constitute the Lower Pleistocene Subseries. All other official subdivisions are pending. For the Middle Pleistocene, three candidate global boundary stratotype sections and points (GSSPs) are under consideration: the Valle di Manche in Calabria and Montalbano Jonico in Basilicata, both in southern Italy, and the Chiba section in Japan. The Matuyama–Brunhes Chron boundary (~773 ka) serves as the principal guide for the base of the Middle Pleistocene. The base of the Upper Pleistocene is generally agreed coincide approximately with that of the last interglacial (Marine Isotope Substage 5e ~130 ka): the Fronte section near Taranto in southern Italy represents a possible candidate GSSP, but an Antarctic ice core might also serve this purpose. Another important task is the subdivision of the Holocene for which a tripartite scheme, with boundaries at 8200 and 4200 years B.P., has been suggested. Additional fine-scale formal subdivision of the Quaternary is being explored, with the Last Glacial Maximum serving as a good example. The “Anthropocene” is both an informal and undefined interval of time that includes the present day. Its duration, formal/informal status, rank, and method of definition are all under debate, with proponents suggest that it be defined as a formal unit beginning with the world’s first nuclear bomb explosion, on July 16th 1945. Suggested and proposed GSSPs are compared and critiqued. The history leading to the ratification of the Quaternary Period in 2009 is examined drawing upon published and unpublished material.



Quaternary, Pleistocene, Holocene, Anthropocene, GSSP

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Quaternary International

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Elsevier BV
MJH acknowledges support from a Discovery Grant of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.