Topic: Deep Time

Deep Time (origin: John McPhee)

Deep time is the measurement of Earth’s chronology on the scale of geologic events and epochs. Based on Earth’s 4.54-billion-year history, deep time is almost unimaginably vast – far more so than conceptualizations of time based on the human lifetime. This means that, much like “deep space,” deep time can be a difficult idea to fully grasp.

The term itself was introduced by American author John McPhee in reference to the work of Scottish geologist James Hutton, who is often considered the “Father of Modern Geology.” During his study of the landscape in the Scottish Lowlands, Hutton theorized that geological formations endured continuing transformations over long periods of time. This work, along with that of other early geologists, suggested that the earth was far older than previously thought, leading Hutton to tell the Royal Society of Edinburgh in a 1785 lecture that “with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end.”

In context of climate literacy, the concept of deep time can be used to understand the profound impact that humans have had on the planet in the short amount of time we have existed (see the Anthropocene). While most alterations to Earth’s climate have been made gradually over millions of years, human-induced climate change is currently occurring at a rapid rate, meaning that many ecosystems are unable to adapt quickly enough. Using deep time thinking can help us comprehend the magnitude of our actions and the long-term consequences they entail.

©2024 ClimateLit (Brandon Storlie)

Related terms: AnthropoceneSlow Violence


Denby, D. (2004, October 3). Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh. New Yorker. Retrieved from

McPhee, J. A. (1983). Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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