4.1 Alfred Wegener — the Father of Plate Tectonics

Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) (Figure 4.1) earned a PhD in astronomy at the University of Berlin in 1904, but he had always been interested in geophysics and meteorology, and spent most of his academic career working in meteorology.

Alfred Wegener during a 1912-1913 expedition to Greenland. [Source: Alfred Wegener Institute (Public domain)]

Figure 1.4 Alfred Wegener during a 1912-1913 expedition to Greenland. [Source: Alfred Wegener Institute (Public domain) http://bit.ly/1Nu9IGz]

In 1911 Wegener happened upon a scientific publication that described matching Permian-aged terrestrial fossils in various parts of South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia.  He concluded that because these organisms could not have crossed the oceans to get from one continent to the next, the continents must have been joined (Figure 4.2).  He envisioned a supercontinent made up of all the present day continents, and named it Pangea, meaning “all land.”  He used the term continental drift to describe the motion of the continents as they reconfigured themselves.

Figure 4.2 The distribution of several Permian terrestrial fossils that are present in various parts of continents that are now separated by oceans. During the Permian, the supercontinent Pangea included the supercontinent Gondwana, shown here, along with North America and Eurasia.

Figure 4.2 The distribution of several Permian terrestrial fossils that are present in various parts of continents that are now separated by oceans. During the Permian, the supercontinent Pangea included the supercontinent Gondwana, shown here, along with North America and Eurasia. [Source: J.M. Watson, USGS, http://bit.ly/1Xs8YRp]

 Wegener pursued his idea with determination — combing the libraries, consulting with colleagues, and making observations — looking for evidence to support it. He relied heavily on matching geological patterns across oceans, such as sedimentary strata in South America matching those in Africa (Figure 4.3), North American coalfields matching those in Europe, and the mountains of Atlantic Canada matching those of northern Britain — both in morphology and rock type. Wegener also referred to the evidence for the Carboniferous and Permian (~300 Ma) Karoo Glaciation in South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia (Figure 4.4). He argued that this could only have happened if these continents were once all connected as a single supercontinent. He also cited evidence (based on his own astronomical observations) that showed that the continents were moving with respect to each other, and determined a separation rate between Greenland and Scandinavia of 11 m per year, although he admitted that the measurements were not accurate.[1]

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Figure 4.3 A cross-section showing the geological similarities between parts of Brazil on the left and Angola (Africa) on the right. The pink layer is a salt deposit, which is now known to be common in areas of continental rifting. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (March 2015) http://www.eia.gov/countries/analysisbriefs/Angola/angola.pdf]

 

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Figure 4.4 The distribution of the Carboniferous and Permian Karoo Glaciation (in blue) [Steven Earle, after http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/96/Karoo_Glaciation.png]

Wegener first published his ideas in 1912 in a short book called Die Entstehung der Kontinente (The Origin of Continents), and then in 1915 in Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans). He revised this book several times up to 1929. It was translated into French, English, Spanish, and Russian in 1924.

The main problem standing in the way of Wegener’s idea being accepted was that he could not explain how the continents could move around.  Remember that, as far as anyone was concerned, the Earth’s crust was continuous, not broken into plates.  That means any mechanism Wegener could think of would have to fit with that model of Earth’s structure. Geologists at the time were aware that the continents were made of different rocks than the ocean crust, and that the material making up the continents was less dense, so Wegener proposed that the continents were like icebergs floating on the heavier ocean crust.  He suggested that the continents were moved by the effect of Earth’s rotation pushing objects toward the equator, and by the lunar and solar tidal forces, which tend to push objects toward the west. However, it was quickly shown that these forces were far too weak to move continents, and without any reasonable mechanism to make it work, Wegener’s theory was quickly dismissed by most geologists of the day.

Alfred Wegener died in Greenland in 1930 while carrying out studies related to glaciation and climate. At the time of his death, his ideas were tentatively accepted by a small minority of geologists, and firmly rejected by most. However, within a few decades that was all to change. For more about his extremely important contributions to Earth science, visit this NASA website: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/Giants/Wegener/


  1. The separation rate is actually about 2.5 cm per year.

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