Alfred Wegener

Black and white image of Alfred WegenerAlfred Lothar Wegener (b 1-11-1880 in Berlin, d 2-11-1930 in Greenland) was born in Germany where his father was a minister. As a child he was always very keen on outdoor activities and loved hiking walking and skating. He was also fascinated by Greenland.

He studied in Germany and Austria and eventually gained a Ph.D in astronomy. However, he very soon found that he was far more interested in weather systems and got involved in meteorology which, at that time, was a very new branch of science.

He was a keen balloonist (he and his brother Kurt held the world record for a flight of 52 hours) and realised that he could use small balloons to monitor upper air movements

In 1906 he managed to combine his love of Greenland and meteorology and went to Greenland on a two year expedition as the expedition meteorologist. This enabled him to gain considerable experience and, on his return he took up a teaching post at the University of Marburg.

In 1910, whilst still at Marburg he noticed that the shapes of the continents looked as if they should fit together. He certainly wasn't the first person to spot this, but unlike others, he continued to pursue this thought and try to work out why they looked like parts of a jig saw puzzle. For a while he continued to work hard with meteorology, publishing an important met' book in 1911, but his thoughts were more and more concerned with the continents.

He was particularly interested to discover that there were parts of the world where identical fossils could be found on opposite sides of large oceans. Obviously the chance of identical species evolving in such places was very slim, and he realised that the occurrence of identical creatures could mean that places were once linked together.

Again, he wasn't the first person to guess that places now far apart were once linked to each other. The commonly accepted view at the time was that there had been 'land bridges' between places - long strip of land crossing oceans that had since vanished .Wegener, however, was more and more convinced that the continents themselves were moving apart.


In January 1912 he went public with his idea of 'continental displacement' (now continental drift) suggesting that there had once been a massive 'super continent' that had drifted apart during the last 200 million years. He arrived at a figure of 200 million years from looking at the ages of the fossils on either side of the oceans.

World War One saw Wegener involved in the fighting and being wounded twice, but it didn't stop him working on his theory. In 1915, with the war in full swing, he published The Origins Of Continents And Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane) in which he argued that there had once been a huge super continent, which he named 'Pangaea', made up of all the land masses on the planet. He chose the name pangaea because it means 'all earth'.

He continued to work on the theory, and published revised editions in the 1920's as he collected new evidence to support the idea.

Throughout this research Wegener found it very difficult to convince other scientists - a few agreed with him, but most didn't. Even his own father-in-law, a famous meteorologist, was against him. In the USA, where scientists tended to be traditional and have a dislike of anything new or not American, the 1924 version of the book - the only version published there - caused so much trouble that it wasn't re-printed! And that was despite it containing solid evidence to show that the shallower oceans were younger than the deeper ones - very good evidence to suggest that the earth's surface was moving.

Two big obstacles held back acceptance of Wegener's work. Firstly he wasn't a geologist and many respectable and important geologists had built their reputations by favouring the 'land bridge' theory. Secondly, no body could see the continents moving and Wegener was unable to find a reason why they should move. Without a cause it was very difficult to justify why the plates moved.


In 1926 Wegener was given a professorship of meteorology and in 1930 he led a major expedition back to Greenland. On the second or third of November he got separated from his party during a storm and died of exposure and cold.


His theory remained alive thanks to the support of a few geologists including Alexander Du Toit and the famous Arthur Holmes. It wasn't until the 1960 that conclusive evidence of continental drift was found, partly due to sea floor exploration by submarines that discovered subduction trenches along the coastline where plates were being pulled under the continental crust. Wilson and Hess took up the cause and Hess proposed the mechanism of 'sea-floor spreading'.


Now that we know so much more about the ways that plates move, and can actually measure the movement, we know that Wegener's estimate of the speed of movement was way off course. The speed he predicted was 10 to 100 times faster than it actually is. The actual speed is round about the speed at which your fingernails grow; no wonder you can't see the plates moving!




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