Alfred Wegener and the Continental Drift

left: Alfred Wegener (1880 – 1930)
right: Rasmus Villumsen

On January 06, 1912, German geologist Alfred Wegener presented his theory of continental drift for the first time in public at a meeting of the Geological Society (‘Geologische Vereinigung’) at Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.

The young Alfred Wegener’s interest in nature evolved during the time he spent with his family in Rheinsberg where they kept a summer house. He was enabled an adequate education and studied physics, meteorology, and astronomy in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Innsbruck before writing his dissertation in Berlin in astronomy. After these achievements, he gained his interest in meteorology and physics.

The first expedition, Alfred Wegener took part in was Greenland, led by the Danish researcher Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen. Their goal was to explore the last unknown parts of Greenland’s northern coast, but unfortunately, Mylius-Erichsen died during the expedition along with two further team members. Wegener was able to construct the first meteorological station near Danmarkshavn, now able to measure the arctic climate. After the expedition, Wegener used his new material for books and lectures he was widely admired for, due to his ability to deliver complex research results comprehensible and exact. It was also in this period, when Wegener openly began talking about his theory of continental drift.

In the early 1910’s, Wegener left for another expedition to Greenland, achieving major scientific results concerning meteorology and geology. After his return, Wegener had to take part in World War I, but was still highly motivated to bring forward his documentation on the continental drift theory through his work ‘Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane‘. However, due to the happenings during the war, only few people gained much interest in Wegener’s major work and his many publications in this field of study.

It was in the 1920’s, when his continental drift theory found some interested researchers, but what they had to contribute was not quite, what Wegener wished to hear. At first he heard much criticism from German fellow scientists and later internationally. Until then, the occurrences of certain fossiles on various continents was explained with the famous land-bridge hypothesis. It meant that former individuals moved on these isthmuses from one continent to another, contrary to the Wegener’s theory. But fortunately Wegener was after years of hard work almost completely able to prove his theory though many observations. He explained the similarity of India’s, Madagascar’s, and East-Africa’s rock formation and how the precambrian rocks of Scotland resembled the one’s at Labrador across the Atlantic Ocean. His evidences went on in the field of paleontology and climate-observations.

While Wegener’s theories remained controversial throughout his lifetime, various scientists continued their interest in the field and a few, for instance the geophysicists Maurice Ewing and  Edward C. Bullard or the American geologist Harry Hess openly defended Alfred Wegener’s statements. A few years later, the scientific knowledge concerning satellite geodesy grew and through the new research field, his theory could by finally and completely proved.

At yovisto, you may enjoy an ‘Alfred Wegener Medal Lecture‘ by Michael Ghil at the 2012 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union.

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