Wegener, Alfred (earth scientist)

(1880-1930) Germany Meteorologist (Plate Tectonics)

Although trained as an astronomer and employed as a meteorologist, Alfred Wegener is recognized as the “father of plate tectonics.” But he proposed his theory so far in advance of its acceptance that he was viewed essentially as a heretic. He made his first presentations on this idea in 1912 and published them in 1915 in a book entitled The Origin of Continents and Oceans. Because of World War I, the book went largely unnoticed outside of Germany until its third printing in 1922 when it was translated into English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. We-gener’s theory rejected the popular idea that land bridges had once connected the continents but had sunk into the sea as the Earth cooled. Instead, he likened the continents to icebergs floating in the ocean, drawing from his Arctic experience. He argued that the continents are made of less dense granitic rock, whereas oceanic rocks are dense volcanic rocks. He developed the still accepted theory of isostasy, which is the balance of the height of crust based upon density and thickness, like wood, ice, or other materials of varying density floating in a swimming pool. He cited the glacial rebound (rising) of land since the last ice age and removal of the mile-thick ice sheet in the northern hemisphere. Mountain ranges were to have formed like wrinkles on a shriveling apple at that time but We-gener proposed that they formed as the result of collisions of existing continents as they drifted around the Earth. He even proposed that all continents had once formed a supercontinent that he named Pangea. This proposal was based not only on the shapes and inferred paths but also on fossils and paleoclimatic evidence. Enigmatic glacial deposits clustered at the South Pole when Pangea was reconstructed, among others.

In 1926, he was invited to an international symposium in New York to discuss his theory. Phrases like “Utter, damned rot!” and “Anyone who valued his reputation for scientific sanity would never dare to support such a theory” and other such criticisms were abundant at the meeting. Stoically, Wegener listened to his critics and murmured, “Nevertheless, it moves!” just as Galileo did as he was forced to recant his support of Copernicus’s theory of the Earth moving around the Sun. Wegener, however, admitted that he had not come up with a satisfactory mechanism to drive the massive plates around the Earth. That would remain a mystery until the late 1950s and 1960s when the rest of the plate tectonic paradigm was derived.

Alfred Wegener was born on November 1, 1880, in Berlin, Germany, where he grew up. He studied natural sciences at the University of Berlin, where he earned all of his degrees including a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1904. In 1905, he obtained a position with the Royal Prussian Aeronautical Observatory near Berlin, where he studied the upper atmosphere using weather balloons and kites. He also flew hot-air balloons and set a world endurance record for staying aloft with his brother Kurt Wegener for 52 hours in 1906. Because of his balloon experience he was invited to participate in a 1906 Danish expedition to Greenland’s unmapped northeast coast. He performed research on the polar atmosphere while there. When he returned to Germany, his success on the Arctic expedition was rewarded with a faculty position at the small University of Marburg, Germany. He led a second expedition to Greenland in 1912 and narrowly escaped death when a glacier his team was climbing suddenly calved. They were the first research team ever to overwinter on the ice cap. In 1924, Wegener joined the faculty at the University of Graz in Austria as a professor of meteorology and geophysics. Wegener returned to Greenland in 1930 to lead a team of 21 scientists on a systematic study of the great ice cap and its climate. The ambitious study wound up 38 days behind schedule because the harbor was iced in. On July 15, a small party headed inland to establish the mid-ice camp at Eismitte on July 30. Because of bad weather, the team got stranded. A rescue team that included Wegener was sent on September 21 to save the first team. The four that made the rescue braved temperatures of -58°F but the group at Eismitte were fine. On November 1, Wegener and a young Greenlander set out for the coast to establish the second camp. They were never heard from again. The next April, a search party was sent out. On May 12, 1931, Wegener’s body was found buried in his sleeping bag. It appears that he died in his tent, likely of a heart at tack from the extreme exertion in driving through the snow. The theory could not be verified because Wegener’s young companion was never found. The remaining team built an ice-block mausoleum marked with a 20-foot iron cross. It has since disappeared into the snow to become part of the great glacier.

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