Scale of Deep Time

That long scroll down to reach this text echoes how ‘deep’ the history of the planet is.¬† Representing 4600 million years (4.6Ga – giga) to scale is not easy. You will find this same scale in the Voyager app when you touch the clock. In the app you can view planetary plate configurations from the deep past along with the occurrence of impacts from space, major volcanic events, extinction events and atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide levels through time.

On this scale most of the geology we encounter today involves rocks formed and live forms evolved in just over the last month of that year! A lot of Earth history for the first ’11 months’ is represented by small exposures of ancient rocks in places like NW Scotland, Greenland, Canada and Australia.

On the scale used for this diagram we cannot correctly show human history, even the last 8000 years would need a line only about one hundredth of a pixel thick. The time since the start of the Industrial Revolution (when most natural resources began to undergo significant consumption) would need a line five ten thousandths of a pixel thick!

What does the dark red line at the top of the scale (above the Neogene) represent?
This is the Quaternary period, which spans the last 2.58 million years. The diagram below shows how the Quaternary period is further subdivided into Epochs and Ages. This subdivision also applies to the other periods like the Jurassic. The boundaries between all these time intervals is set by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

The time boundaries are decided on the basis of a significant event which is well represented in the rock record at some location. For example, the start of the Greenlandian is based on an ice core sample from  the North Greenland Ice Core project. The core marks the end of the Younger Dryas Рa brief period of return to near glacial conditions. The current Megahalayan is based on a formation preserved in a cave in Megahalaya in northeast India.

Many would like the International Commission on Stratigraphy to official adopt the Anthropocene as an age, or maybe a new epoch or period, marking the time when humanity became a significant force in shaping the planet. Some have suggested 1945 as a time horizon, as that was the year of the first nuclear bombs, which will have left a signature of radioisotopes in the rocks forming at that time.

Some of the maps used in Voyages contain the words ‘Monsters of the Anthropocene’, to signify dangers from traffic. Vehicles being a threat to life in this age, perhaps just as much as the larger lifeforms of the past.