Wegener, Alfred Lothar

Alfred Lothar Wegener (November 1, 1880 ““ November 2, 1930) was a German scientist, geologist, and meteorologist. He is best known for establishing the theory of the continental drift. His 1915 theory of continental drift surmised that the continents were slowly floating around the Earth. Most of his basis was strictly circumstantial evidence, and further he was not able to exhibit a mechanism for continental drift, which resulted in an unaccepted hypothesis until the 1950s. At that time, a multitude of discoveries had come about to substantiate his suggestion.

Wegener received training in astronomy very early. He earned a PhD in astronomy from the University of Berlin in 1904, but always held a special interest in the evolving fields of meteorology and climatology.

Wegener was a hobby balloonist, flying a balloon in the air for a record 52 hours straight. He also pioneered the use of weather tracking balloons to monitor air masses. The Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere is a compilation of his lectures which became a standard textbook in meteorology. Wegener participated in several expeditions to Greenland to investigate polar air circulation before the idea of the jet stream was believed.

In his last expedition to Greenland, his purpose was to conduct the first 12 month observation of arctic weather. Wegener felt pressured to see successful fruition of the expedition because the German government had contributed a substantial amount of money during a time of post war shortage. For the expedition to succeed, enough provisions needed to be transferred from the West camp to their Eismitte camp, so that he and his partner, Rasmus Villumsen, could survive the winter. Although the frost-bitten team struggled steadfastly to beat the treacherous conditions, it ultimately ended in their demise.

Beginning in 1912, he widely promoted his theory of “continental drift,” contending that the continents had once been connected in a single landmass and have drifted apart. In Wegner’s 1915 publication entitled The Origin of Continents and Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane) he discusses his theory that there had once been a “super-continent” he named “Pangaea” (meaning “All-Lands” or “All-Earth”) that can be supported by evidence from a range of fields. In the 1920s, expanded editions bestowed accrued evidence. His significant observation that shallower oceans were younger geologically was made known in his last edition, right before his tragic death.

Because Wegener’s theory was maintained mostly by circumstantial evidence, his hypothesis was typically met with skepticism. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists arranged a seminar specifically in antagonism to the theory. However, a few early supporters such as Alexander Du Toit of South Africa and Arthur Holmes of England advocated his theory. Those in opposition to his theory argued that the oceanic crust was too dense for the continents to “simply plow through.” Opponent, George Gaylord Simpson, composed a passionate attack that was so influential that countries that had previously been receptive of the idea, like Australia, discontinued their acceptance.

Wegener’s theory saw redemption in the 1950s in light of research being pioneered at Cambridge University and Imperial College in a new field of science called paleomagnetism. The two leading researchers, S.K. Runcorn and P.M.S Blackett, were presenting substantial data to support Wegener’s theory, including physical samples that had be excavated from India that showed that the country had once been in the Southern hemisphere. By 1959, academic opinions started changing on the theory based on the recent evidence, particularly in the United Kingdom where the Royal Society hosted a conference on the subject in 1964.

Furthermore, the 1960s revealed many developments in geology, including the discoveries of seafloor spreading and Wadati-Benioff zones. This let to the swift revival of the continental drift hypothesis and its direct descendant, the theory of plate tectonics. Alfred Wegener finally received his due recognition as founding father of one of the key revolutions of the 20th century.