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Alfred Wegener (1880-1930)

"Scientists still do not appear to understand sufciently that all earth sciences must
contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and
that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence. . . It
is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can
hope to determine 'truth' here, that is to say, to fnd the picture that sets out all the
known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of
probability. urther, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new
discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we
draw." !lfred "egener. The Origins of Continents and Oceans #$th edition%
Some truly revolutionary scientifc theories may take years or decades to win
general acceptance among scientists. &his is certainly true of plate tectonics, one of
the most important and far'ranging geological theories of all time( when frst
proposed, it was ridiculed, but steadily accumulating evidence fnally prompted its
acceptance, with immense conse)uences for geology, geophysics, oceanography,
and paleontology. !nd the man who frst proposed this theory was a brilliant
interdisciplinary scientist, !lfred "egener.
*orn on +ovember ,, ,--., !lfred /othar "egener earned a 0h.1 in astronomy from
the 2niversity of *erlin in ,3.$. 4owever, he had always been interested in
geophysics, and also became fascinated with the developing felds of meteorology
and climatology. 1uring his life, "egener made several key contributions to
meteorology5 he pioneered the use of balloons to track air circulation, and wrote a
te6tbook that became standard throughout 7ermany. In ,3.8 "egener 9oined an
e6pedition to 7reenland to study polar air circulation. :eturning, he accepted a post
as tutor at the 2niversity of ;arburg, taking time to visit 7reenland again in ,3,<'
,3,=. #&he above photograph of "egener was taken during this e6pedition%. In ,3,$
he was drafted into the 7erman army, but was released from combat duty after
being wounded, and served out the war in the !rmy weather forecasting service.
!fter the war, "egener returned to ;arburg, but became frustrated with the
obstacles to advancement placed in his way( in ,3<$ he accepted a specially
created professorship in meteorology and geophysics at the 2niversity of 7ra>, in
!ustria. "egener made what was to be his last e6pedition to 7reenland in ,3=..
"hile returning from a rescue e6pedition that brought food to a party of his
colleagues camped in the middle of the 7reenland icecap, he died, a day or two
after his fftieth birthday.
"hile at ;arburg, in the autumn of ,3,,, "egener was browsing in the university
library when he came across a scientifc paper that listed fossils of identical plants
and animals found on opposite sides of the !tlantic. Intrigued by this information,
"egener began to look for, and fnd, more cases of similar organisms separated by
great oceans. ?rthodo6 science at the time e6plained such cases by postulating
that land bridges, now sunken, had once connected far'@ung continents. *ut
"egener noticed the close ft between the coastlines of !frica and South !merica.
;ight the similarities among organisms be due, not to land bridges, but to the
continents having been 9oined together at one timeA !s he later wrote5 "! conviction
of the fundamental soundness of the idea took root in my mind."
Such an insight, to be accepted, would re)uire large amounts of supporting
evidence. "egener found that large'scale geological features on separated
continents often matched very closely when the continents were brought together.
or e6ample, the !ppalachian mountains of eastern +orth !merica matched with
the Scottish 4ighlands, and the distinctive rock strata of the Barroo system of South
!frica were identical to those of the Santa Catarina system in *ra>il. "egener also
found that the fossils found in a certain place often indicated a climate utterly
diDerent from the climate of today5 for e6ample, fossils of tropical plants, such as
ferns and cycads, are found today on the !rctic island of Spitsbergen. !ll of these
facts supported "egener's theory of "continental drift." In ,3,E the frst edition
of The Origin of Continents and Oceans, a book outlining "egener's theory, was
published( e6panded editions were published in ,3<., ,3<<, and ,3<3. !bout =..
million years ago, claimed "egener, the continents had formed a single mass,
called 0angaea #from the 7reek for "all the Farth"%. 0angaea had rifted, or split, and
its pieces had been moving away from each other ever since. "egener was not the
frst to suggest that the continents had once been connected, but he was the frst to
present e6tensive evidence from several felds.
:eaction to "egener's theory was almost uniformly hostile, and often e6ceptionally
harsh and scathing( 1r. :ollin &. Chamberlin of the 2niversity of Chicago said,
""egener's hypothesis in general is of the footloose type, in that it takes
considerable liberty with our globe, and is less bound by restrictions or tied down by
awkward, ugly facts than most of its rival theories." 0art of the problem was that
"egener had no convincing mechanism for how the continents might move.
"egener thought that the continents were moving through the earth's crust, like
icebreakers plowing through ice sheets, and that centrifugal and tidal forces were
responsible for moving the continents. ?pponents of continental drift noted that
plowing through oceanic crust would distort continents beyond recognition, and that
centrifugal and tidal forces were far too weak to move continents '' one scientist
calculated that a tidal force strong enough to move continents would cause the
Farth to stop rotating in less than one year. !nother problem was that @aws in
"egener's original data caused him to make some incorrect and outlandish
predictions5 he suggested that +orth !merica and Furope were moving apart at
over <E. cm per year #about ten times the fastest rates seen today, and about a
hundred times faster than the measured rate for +orth !merica and Furope%. &here
were scientists who supported "egener5 the South !frican geologist !le6ander 1u
&oit supported it as an e6planation for the close similarity of strata and fossils
between !frica and South !merica, and the Swiss geologist Gmile !rgand saw
continental collisions as the best e6planation for the folded and buckled strata that
he observed in the Swiss !lps. "egener's theory found more scattered support after
his death, but the ma9ority of geologists continued to believe in static continents
and land bridges.
"hat prompted the revival of continental driftA In large part it was increased
e6ploration of the Farth's crust, notably the ocean @oor, beginning in the ,3E.s and
continuing on to the present day. *y the late ,38.s, plate tectonics was well
supported and accepted by almost all geologists. "e now know that "egener's
theory was wrong in one ma9or point5 continents do not plow through the ocean
@oor. Instead, both continents and ocean @oor form solid plates, which "@oat" on
the asthenosphere, the underlying rock that is under such tremendous heat and
pressure that it behaves as an e6tremely viscous li)uid. #Incidentally, this is why the
older term "continental drift" is not )uite accurate '' both continents and oceanic
crust move.%
Since "egener's day, scientists have mapped and e6plored the great system of
oceanic ridges, the sites of fre)uent earth)uakes, where molten rock rises from
below the crust and hardens into new crust. "e now know that the farther away you
travel from a ridge, the older the crust is, and the older the sediments on top of the
crust are. &he clear implication is that the ridges are the sites where plates are
moving apart #click on the picture at the left to see a map of the age of the ocean
crust%. "here plates collide, great mountain ranges may be pushed up, such as the
4imalayas( or if one plate sinks below another, deep oceanic trenches and chains of
volcanoes are formed. Farth)uakes are by far most common along plate boundaries
and rift >ones5 plotting the location of earth)uakes allows seismologists to map
plate boundaries and depths #click on the picture at the right to view a map of
)uake epicenters%. 0aleomagnetic data have allowed us to map past plate
movements much more precisely than before. It is even possible to measure the
speed of continental plates e6tremely accurately, using satellite technology.
+evertheless, "egener's basic insights remain sound, and the lines of evidence that
he used to support his theory are still actively being researched and e6panded.