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Geosciences LibreTexts

1.38: Uniformitarianism

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    • Contributed by Miracosta Oceanography 101
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    The concept of the rock cycle is attributed to a Scottish physician, James Hutton (1726-1797), who studied rocks and landscapes and coastlines throughout the British Isles. Hutton's concepts were later promoted in a book entitled Principles of Geology by the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell (the book was released in 3 volumes in 1830-1833). Hutton and Lyell are considered the founders of modern geology. Hutton also promoted the theory of uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism emphasizes that all geologic phenomena may be explained as the result of existing forces having operated uniformly from the origin of the Earth to the present time. Uniformitarianism is commonly summarized: "The present is key to the past."

    Hutton fearlessly debated that the Earth was very old, measured in millions of years rather than thousands of years as promoted by the religion organizations of his times.

    Many scientists in Hutton's time promoted an alternative theory of catastrophism. Catastrophism is a theory that major changes in the Earth's crust result from catastrophes rather than evolutionary processes. The theory of catastrophism was more in line with religious doctrine common in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    It is interesting that today, uniformitarianism still applies to most geologic and landscape features, but discoveries have show that the Earth, or large regions of it, have experience great catastrophes, such as asteroid impacts, great earthquakes, collapse of continental shelves (causing massive underwater landslides and tsunamis), super storms, great floods, or volcanic events. However, these events can be scientifically viewed within the greater context of modern geology. Uniformitarianism explains how observable processes taking place over long periods of time can change the landscape. Examples include:

    * earthquakes only happen occasionally, but in an area taking place over millions of years can result in the formation of a mountain range.
    * the deposition of silt from annual floods over millions of years can built a great river delta complex.
    * the slow growth and accumulation of coral and algal material over time can build a great barrier reef.