Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift – the idea that Earth’s continents move. Despite publishing a large body of compelling fossil and rock evidence for his theory between 1912 and 1929, it was rejected by most other scientists. It was only in the 1960s that continental drift finally became part of mainstream science.
Alfred Wegener: Beginnings
Alfred Wegener was born on November 1, 1880, in Germany’s capital city, Berlin.
His father, Richard Wegener, was a classical languages teacher and pastor. His mother, Anna Wegener, was a housewife. The Wegener family of two adults and five children – Alfred was the youngest – was well-off financially.
Alfred was an intelligent boy. He received a conventional education at grammar school in Berlin, where his academic ability marked him for a university education.
He began university in Berlin in 1899, age 18, taking a variety of science classes. He specialized in astronomy, meteorology, and physics. In 1902, he began a PhD degree in astronomy. He spent a year at Berlin’s famous Urania Observatory, whose purpose was (and still is) to bring astronomy to the public.
Alfred Wegener completed his PhD in 1905, age 24. Although now qualified to become a professional astronomer, he was worried that he might not discover anything new or interesting in astronomy. He believed he could make a greater contribution in meteorology – the study of weather and climate.
Alfred Wegener’s Scientific Career
A first job and a world record
In 1905, Wegener started work as a scientist at a meteorological station near the small German town of Beeskow.
There, working with his older brother Kurt, he carried out pioneering work using weather balloons to study air movements. If there had been a Guinness Book of World Records in 1906, the Wegener brothers would have won the record for the longest continuous balloon flight ever: 52.5 hours in April of that year.
Wegener was delighted to be appointed as the official meteorologist for the Danmark scientific expedition to Greenland, the world’s largest island, which took place from 1906 to 1908. The expedition’s principle aim was to map Greenland’s unexplored northeast coast. During the expedition, Wegener made his mark by building Greenland’s first meteorological station and taking a large number of atmospheric readings using kites and balloons.
The expedition’s work in uncharted territory was dangerous – three expedition members died of starvation/exposure!
Returning to Germany in 1908, Wegener became an associate professor in meteorology at the University of Marburg. There he quickly gained a reputation for giving lectures that made difficult topics easy for his students to understand.
In 1910, he published his first book: Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere. He also had the first inkling of the idea that would bring him both anguish and long-lasting fame: continental drift.
Wegener looks at a map and sits up
Looking at a world map in 1910, Wegener noticed how the coastlines of eastern South America and western Africa seemed to fit together, rather like jigsaw pieces.
Publishing fossil and geological evidence
After further research, in 1911 Wegener learned that fossils of several species were present in both Brazil and western Africa. This evidence suggested to him that South America and Africa were in physical contact when the fossilized animals and plants were alive.
His study of geological data gave him evidence that similar rock formations existed on the two continents.
In 1912, age 32, Wegener delivered talks at German universities and published two papers proposing that Earth’s continents moved. His work on continental drift then suffered two interruptions: a second expedition to Greenland, followed by the outbreak of World War 1 – Wegener was conscripted into the German Army.
Nevertheless, while recovering from a wound in 1915, he wrote and published his groundbreaking book: The Origin of Continents and Oceans, in which he discussed the movement of Earth’s continents.
He proposed that many millions of years ago Earth consisted of a single great continent surrounded by ocean. Very slowly the land masses of this huge continent moved apart to form the continents we see today. Unfortunately, nobody took much notice of his proposal!
Today we recognize that Wegener’s ancient continent truly existed. We call it by the name Wegener gave it – Pangaea.
More evidence and more book editions
In 1920, 1922 and 1929, Wegener published updated editions of The Origin of Continents and Oceans, adding more evidence each time for his idea that the continents move around the planet at very slow speeds. He also added further evidence he had gathered in Greenland, which showed that Greenland and North America were once linked.
He said he was not the first person to propose the movement of continents; others had also found evidence from fossils and rocks which strongly suggested continents now far apart were once joined – the American geologist Frank Bursley Taylor had published evidence in 1910 supporting the idea of continental drift. Wegener’s work was independent of Taylors.
In 1920s America, people referred to continental drift as the Taylor-Wegener theory.
Geologists Reject Wegener’s Ideas
Scientists who stray into another field can encounter difficulties, such as those encountered by physicist Luis Alvarez when he proposed a meteor impact had resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Wegener was an astronomer who had become a meteorologist. He was not a geologist and he found that a large majority of geologists were vigorously opposed to his ideas.
In compiling a huge volume of convincing evidence for Pangaea and continental drift he had made one or two small errors, and he also made one big error.
Although the rock and fossil evidence he reported should have been more than enough to convince skeptics that his theory was largely correct, Wegener tried to explain why continents move – and got this wrong!
Polflucht is German for pole flight. Wegener proposed that there was a geological force which pushed the continents away from Earth’s poles towards the equator.
Geologists rightly told him this was untrue. Unfortunately they threw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting Wegener’s truly compelling evidence for continental drift. Moreover, they rejected work which today we recognize as a forerunner of the correct explanation of continental drift – plate tectonics, the idea that solid continents float on a fluid mantle.
Wegener published what would be the final edition of his book The Origin of Continents and Oceans in 1929.
On an unknown day in mid-November 1930, Alfred Wegener died on his fourth expedition to Greenland. He was 50 years old.
He had been trying to resupply a remote camp in very bad weather. Temperatures had dropped as low as a deadly -60 °C (-76 °F). He supplied the camp successfully, but there was not enough food at the camp for him to stay there. He and a colleague, Rasmus Villumsen, took dog sleds to travel to another camp.
Wegener died on this journey, probably of a heart attack. Villumsen buried Wegener’s body in the snow, marking his grave with skis. Villumsen then resumed his journey, but did not complete it. His body was never found.
In May 1931, Kurt Wegener discovered his brother’s grave. He and other expedition members built a pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the ice and snow, and Alfred Wegener’s body was laid to rest in it. The mausoleum has now, with the passing of time, been buried under Greenland’s ice.
Alfred Wegener was survived by his wife, Else Köppen, whom he had married in 1913, and two daughters: Sophie Käte and Lotte.
Alfred Wegener’s Scientific Legacy
Today, we recognize that Wegener was right.
It was only in the 1960s, when the theory of plate tectonics was recognized as correct, that geologists finally accepted Wegener’s continental drift theory and his concept of Pangaea were also correct. Wegener’s ideas are now standard concepts in geology, taught to everyone who studies the subject.
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