Alfred Wegener – The Theory of Continental Drift

Alfred Wegener - The Theory of Continental Drift

During an early summer after-concert party at Carnegie Hall in 1971, a clearly relieved Carole King, riding an emotional high after the successful reception of her very first pop concert, told a Rolling Stone stringer, perhaps jokingly, that Alfred Wegener inspired the lyrics for her classic hit (“der Schlager”) I Feel the Earth Move! We’ll probably never know if Ms King was serious; however, who can say the claim itself is not on firm ground?

Alfred Lothar Wegener (01 November 1880 ― ?? November 1930) was a German meteorologist and geophysicist who carefully devised and articulated (1910-1915) the concept of continental drift, a scientific hypothesis that other scientists rejected for several decades, but which ultimately gave rise to the theory of plate tectonics―now accepted almost universally by scientists and laymen alike. Continental drift is defined as the large-scale horizontal movements of continents relative to one another and to the ocean basins during one or more episodes of geologic time. This concept was an important precursor to the development of the theory of plate tectonics, which incorporates it.

Alfred Wegener’s university Career

The University of Berlin awarded Wegener a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1905; however, Wegener developed an enthusiastic and abiding interest in paleoclimatology, the scientific study of the climates of past ages.  He focused on the arctic regions and polar air circulation, particularly in Greenland, and took part in several expeditions to that remote, ice-covered island, first in 1906, then in 1912, 1929, and, finally, in 1930, during which expedition he died at only 50 years of age.  His body and effects are supposedly now covered by more than 100 meters of ice and snow.

When not trudging through Greenland’s ice and snow, Wegener taught meteorology, first at the University of Marburg, beginning in 1909, where he covered meteorology, astronomy, and a topic he called “astronomic-geographic position-fitting” for explorers, i.e., how not to get lost in unchartered territory.  In 1921, Wegener accepted the position of meteorologist at the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg and the University of Hamburg appointed him senior lecturer; however, the worldwide scientific community continued to sneer at his continental-drift hypothesis and writings on continental-drift and he keenly felt the academic isolation at the University of Hamburg.  In 1924, he took up the position of professor of meteorology and geophysics at the University of Graz, in Austria, where he continued until his death in 1930.

First international Recognition

The New York Times wrote about Wegener’s theory of continental drift in an extensive article on Sunday, 25 March 1923, commenting that “. . . records indicate Greenland is . . . running wild.  It has moved west by almost four-fifths of a mile (1,300 meters) in 37 years.”  The article also cited “The almost universal distribution of many families of animals, birds, insects, and plants as proved both by fossils and surviving specimens . . .” as evidence that Wegener’s theory had merit.  Nevertheless, the then collective received wisdom of the world’s scientific community was skeptical at best, offering various counter-theories to explain or refute the arguments Wegener put forth, yet tempering their criticisms with the safe argument that “. . . it becomes very apparent that the surest test of its [Wegener’s theory] validity lies in the domain of geology.”

Critics of the Theory of Continental Drift

One of the most consistent critics of Wegener’s continental drift theory was Thomas Chamberlin, a prominent U. S. geologist with the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.  Chamberlin, a very intelligent, well educated, and experienced academic, proved to be quite stupid, i.e., someone who thinks he knows it all and who absolutely refuses to keep an open mind, particularly in the face of credible scientific research.  Chamberlin did not use a point-by-point refutation of the theory of continental drift.  Rather, he based his appeal to fellow scientists to reject Wegener’s theory by appealing to their egos and to their innate supposed laziness.  He said, “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis, we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.”  In other words, “let’s tell ourselves that we already know the truth and save ourselves the effort of examining the validity of what we think we know.”  Years later, Chamberlin’s group would also oppose acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics, a theory that is now a well-established scientific fact.  There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Alfred Wegener - The Theory of Continental Drift
© Pixabay

When one compares a map of South America with a map of Africa, it’s quite obvious that the bulge of South America more or less corresponds to the bight of Africa.  It is that phenomenon that first struck Wegener as being too odd to be a mere coincidence; there had to be more to it.  From a practical point of view, one is inclined to ask:  “Are there diamond fields and veins of gold in that part of South America which corresponds geographically to South Africa, i.e., southeastern Uruguay and northeastern Argentina?”

The Breakthrough of the Theory of Continental Drift

The scientific community wrangled about Wegener’s theory for more than four decades before the theory of plate tectonics evolved.  The breakthrough came about in the early 1950s when the imprints of the Earth’s magnetic history, the study of which is called paleomagnetism, were closely examined.  There was no adequate explanation other than continental drift to account for the otherwise erratic occurrences of incompatible magnetic imprints.  Researchers realized that, only if there had indeed been only one continent in the beginning, the oddly occurring magnetic imprints would result only by that huge continent’s breaking up and the pieces drifting off in different directions.  That significant research and discovery prompted even more intense scrutiny of magnetic imprints around the world.  The increased interest among geologists and geophysicists, coupled with ever more sophisticated techniques and measuring instruments, established beyond doubt that plate tectonics and continental drift are indisputably valid.