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Alfred Wegener (1880-1930)

Geologist, Theory of Continental Drift

Alfred Lotha Wagener is best known for his work in geology that led him to propose his theory of Continental Drift.

He was born on the 1st of November 1880 in Berlin, Germany and was the youngest of five children to a clergyman and his wife.

He was a great student and later studied physics, meteorology and astronomy in Berlin. During this time he was also an assistant at an observatory, and became a doctor of astronomy afterwards.

His elder brother Kurt was similarly interested in meteorology and these two brothers were the first to start using weather balloons.

During this expedition, Wegener built the first weather station in Greenland where he used to launch kites and weather balloons to measure the climate in the Arctic zone.

He lectured in meteorology on his return and all his lectures were grouped together into a book that had many facts from his expeditions to Greenland.

His ideas on the continental drift were first revealed on the 6th of January 1912, but many people rejected it and thought him crazy!

Wegener’s theory of continental drift said that the continents had started off as one huge block of land, but over time these had started drifting apart. He was only partly wrong.

In fact, he was not the first scientist to come up with this idea. But he was the first scientist brave enough to talk about it and base his career on it.

If you look closely at a world map you would see that the West coast of Africa and the East coast of South America would fit together like a jigsaw puzzle if you removed the ocean in between. Like you, many people back then had noticed it too.

Even mountain ridges across continents would match up when fitted together, and the type of rocks on one continent would match the continent right opposite it.

This similarity did not extend only to rocks and soil. Even animal and plant fossils found on one continent were found on other continents that were now separated by the ocean.

Wegener’s research led him to find that even certain animal fossils found in Antarctica could never have survived there originally because of the cold, and was therefore most definitely closer to the equator.

All these factors together led Wegener to believe that the whole world was once an entire block of land, what he called Pangaea.

He believed that something had caused this mass of land to split up into continents, and then drift away in sea and be where they are now.

While people readily believed that all the continents had once been a mass of land, what they could not believe is that they had drifted through the sea because they would have sunk.

Instead of believing the second part of Wegener’s theory, they believed that the sea levels kept rising and covering land; in other words that the land had sunk below sea level.

But this alternate theory did not seem very believable either, because it did not explain Wegener’s observations of mountain ridges and continents fitting together like a puzzle.

Sadly, though, at the time of Wegener’s death his Pangaea theory of the continental drift was not widely accepted. His theory is also known as the theory of plate tectonics.

Later deep sea expeditions proved that Wegener’s theory was at least partly true, and clues to how the continents drifted apart could be found in the waves of the ocean floor.

In the modern day however, the theory that all the world’s continents were once a huge mass of land is held widely.

Tragically, Wegener died on his last Greenland expedition in October 1930. His body was found six months later buried by one of his teammates along with the pair of skis he was using.

He was rumoured to have smoked a lot and people believe that he died not of the cold but of a heart attack that came from tiring himself too much.

Alfred Wegener was perhaps earlier that his time, but his theory has given us many facts that allow us to understand not only how the continents formed, but also the various connections of wildlife and plants on different continents.