Eduard Suess and the Study of Tectonics

Eduard Suess

Eduard Suess

On August 20, 1831, Austrian geologist Eduard Suess was born. Suess was an expert on the geography of the Alps and helped lay the basis for paleogeography and tectonics, i.e. the study of the architecture and evolution of the Earth‘s outer rocky shell. He is responsible for hypothesising two major former geographical features, the supercontinent Gondwana (proposed in 1861) and the Tethys Ocean.

Eduard Suess started working as an assistant at the Hofmuseum in Vienna and managed to publish his first paper on the geology of Carlsbad at the age of only 19. In 1856, Suess was appointed professor of paleontology at the University of Vienna, a few years later he was appointed professor of geology. Back then, Suess began developing theories on the connection between Africa and Europe. He came to the conclusion that the Alps to the north were once at the bottom of an ocean, of which the Mediterranean was a remnant. However, Eduard Suess was inorrect in his analysis which based on contractionism, the theory that Earth is cooling down and, therefore, contracting. Still, Suess is credited with postulating the earlier existence of the Tethys Ocean, which he named in 1893. In 1885, he claimed that land bridges had connected South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica. He named this ancient broken continent Gondwanaland.

In 1885, Eduard Suess published “Das Antlitz der Erde” (The Face of the Earth) as a comprehensive synthesis of his ideas. For many years, this successful and influential work was a popular textbook. In the second volume of the book, Suess set out his belief that across geologic time, the rise and fall of sea levels were mappable across the earth; that is, that the periods of ocean transgression and regression were correlateable from one continent to another. This theory by Suess was based on glossopteris fern fossils occurring in South America, Africa, and India. Suess explained that the three lands were once connected in a supercontinent, which he named Gondwanaland. In Suess work on the Face of the Earth, the author further introduced the concept of the biosphere, which was later extended by Vladimir I. Vernadsky in 1926.

In 1895, Eduard Suess was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. One year later he received the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London and he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1903.

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