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Catching the Drift

On November 1, 1880, astronomer, meteorologist, natural scientist, and Arctic explorer, Alfred Lothar Wegener was born in Berlin. Like many before him, Wegener was intrigued with the similarities of continental coastlines that seemed to once have fit together. Instead of merely regarding present coastlines, Wegener matched the edges of the continental shelves.

Photo of a man
Scientist-explorer Alfred Wegener pursued every avenue of research to explain “continental drift” decades before technology proved him right. [Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute]

Over a few decades, he developed a theory that perhaps at some point in prehistoric time these had formed a primitive landmass he called Pangaea, “all the Earth” in Greek. He theorized Pangaea had broken apart through geologic processes and slowly moved apart through geologic eras in a “continental displacement”. Perhaps by convection currents in the mantle. In the last edition of his book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, he observed that shallower oceans were geologically younger.

An interdisciplinary scientist, he searched the literature of several disciplines for physical proof to support his proposal and found it in geologic formations, sediment strata, rock types, some plant species, and fossils. With neither fieldwork nor academic credential in geophysics, Wegener and his theory of Continental Drift, as it came to be known, were treated seriously by very few of his peers and rejected by most.

The technology that produced irrefutable scientific data arrived many decades later to reveal Wegener’s theory was on the right track but ahead of its time. Others expanded his theory into one of the greatest advances in Earth Sciences, the study of plate tectonics.

On his centenary in 1980, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research was established in Bremerhaven, Germany. The Alfred Wegener Medal and honorary membership is awarded by the European Geosciences Union.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage