Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) came up with the idea of catastrophes to explain the formation of geological features and the extinction of fossil animals.

It was a matter of some concern, at that point in time, as to why there were so many fossils of animals that are now extinct. If God created all the animals (as he most certainly did!), and every species of animal has remained unchanged from the act of creation to the current day (and they most certainly have!), why were there so very many fossils of creatures that are no longer present?

Cuvier was not as strict on religious dogma as were many of his time; he believed that animals could undergo small changes due to environmental pressures, but he didn't accept full scale evolution. He thought that the fossils that were being found at the time were the unfortunate animals that didn't survive a major cataclysm (possibly including, but not limited to, Noah's Flood). Other (already existing) species moved in to take their place. These cataclysms were not necessarily worldwide, as geological sequence differed in different parts of the world.

His position did give support to the idea of worldwide cataclysms (to explain the constant and complete overturn of species), and many people believed that these were God's doing. These 'many people' were mostly English and Protestant (the two being correlated). The latest of these cataclysms was supposed to have been Noah's flood.

William Whewell named this type of position Catastrophism in 1832.

Catastrophism is contrasted with uniformitarianism, and by the more modern (but still controversial) punctuated equilibrium.

Primary Sources:
The Stages of Human Evolution by C. Loring Brace
Biological Anthropology by Michael Alan Park.