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Alfred Wegener

Alfred Lothar Wegener (Berlin, November 1, 1880 - Greenland, November, 1930) was a German interdisciplinary scientist whose early training had been in astronomy (Ph.D., University of Berlin, 1905). He became interested in the new discipline of meteorology and as a record-holding balloonist himself, pioneered the use of weather balloons to track air masses. His lectures became a standard textbook in meteorology, The Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere. Wegener was part of several expeditions to Greenland to study polar air circulation, when the existence of a jet stream itself was highly controversial. He died there of exposure in bitter cold.

Browsing the library at the University of Marburg, where he was teaching in 1911, Wegener was struck by the occurrence of identical fossils in geological strata that are now separated by oceans. Orthodox theories at the time posited land bridges to explain away these anomalies, but Wegener was increasingly convinced that the continents themselves had shifted away from a primal single massive supercontinent, which drifted apart approximately 200 million years ago, to judge from the fossil evidence. From 1912 he publicly advocated his theory of "continental drift", arguing that the continents on either side of the Atlantic Ocean were drifting apart. Recovery from a war wound gave Wegener time to think. In 1915, in The Origin of Continents and Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane), Wegener published the theory that there had once been a giant supercontinent, which he named "Pangaea" ("all-Earth") and drew together evidence from various fields. Expanded editions during the 1920s presented the accumulating evidence. The last edition, just before his untimely death, revealed the significant observation that shallower oceans were geologically younger. The one American edition, published in 1924, provoked such hostility that it was not revised.

Many geologists insisting on scientific consensus ridiculed Wegener for his ideas; noting that he could not explain how continents were able to move. North American geologists were particularly dismissive. Only after the mid-20th century discovery of seafloor spreading did Wegener receive credit, as a developer of the theory of plate tectonics. It took more than 50 years for the "consensus" of the scientists to acknowledge a fact that is obvious to every kid who looks at the map of Africa and South America.

The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, established in 1980, honors his name.

See also: Gondwana, Laurasia

External links

  • Alfred Wegener biography
  • USGS biography
  • Wegener biography at
  • Wegener Institute website (English)

Last updated: 02-05-2005 06:37:15
Last updated: 02-24-2005 04:29:50