Alfred Wegener

Alfred Wegener

The name of the German geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener is synonymous with the theory of continental drift. He was the first person to provide significant evidence for a consistent and logical hypothesis that realized a broad variety of natural phenomena.


Early Life and Education:

Wegener was born in Berlin to an evangelical minister. He studied at the universities of Heidelberg, Innsbruck, and Berlin and acquired a doctorate in astronomy. As an student, he dreamed of exploring the wonders of Greenland. Wegener also had much interest in the relatively unknown science of meteorology.

Contributions and Achievements:

While preparing for an expedition to the Arctic, Wegener practised backbreaking exercise. He also mastered kiting and ballooning for taking better weather observations. Even in 1906, he achieved a world record of an uninterrupted flight for 52 hours, with his brother Kurt.

Subsequently, Wegener was selected as a meteorologist to a Danish expedition to northeastern Greenland. After his return, he took a job as a junior teacher of meteorology at the University of Marburg. In a few years, he published his first textbook on the thermodynamics of the atmosphere. He also went to a second expedition to Greenland in 1912 with the Danish expeditioner J. P Koch. This trip turned out to be the longest crossing of the icecap ever completed by foot.

Alfred Wegener got married to Else Köppen, the daughter of another famous meteorologist, W. P. Köppen. After the death of his father-in-law, Wegener succeeded Mr. Köppen as the director of the Meteorological Research Department of the Marine Observatory at Hamburg. He also accepted a teaching position of meteorology and geophysics at the University of Graz, Austria in 1926.

Wegener lost his life in 1930 while conducting a third expedition to Greenland in 1930, reportedly due to a severe heart attack. Last seen alive on his 50th birthday in 1930, he was hailed as one of the greatest arctic explorers ever and a groundbreaking meteorologist. Today, Wegener is widely regarded as the most important proponent of the theory of continental drift.

Much of the evidence that made Wegener put forward the theory was related to the continents bordering the South Atlantic. Besides the implicative ‘jigsaw fit’, there was a paleontological evidence for a possible direct connection between them. However, the popular belief of the incidental sinking of a land bridge beneath the ocean was rejected mainly due to the principle of isostasy, which says that the higher topography of the Earth is compensated by the presence of mostly irreversible continental crustal rocks. Several geologic links between the continents were also found that were more credibly made clear by former contiguity.

Wegener also provided a few paleoclimatological arguments related to both polar wandering and continental drift. Regrettably, he was unsuccessful in presenting a credible mechanism for continental drift, one of the main reasons his views were ignored and criticized until the plate tectonics revolution of the late 1960s.