Biography of Alfred Wegener, German Scientist

Digital illustration of map showing the Earth's tectonic plates
Dorling Kindersley/ Getty Images

Alfred Wegener (November 1, 1880–November 1930) was a German meteorologist and geophysicist who developed the first theory of continental drift and formulated the idea that a supercontinent known as Pangaea existed on the Earth millions of years ago. His ideas were largely ignored at the time they were developed but today they are widely accepted by the scientific community. As part of his research, Wegener also took part in several journeys to Greenland, where he studied the atmosphere and ice conditions.

Fast Facts: Alfred Wegener

  • Known For: Wegener was a German scientist who developed the idea of continental drift and Pangaea.
  • Born: November 1, 1880 in Berlin, Germany
  • Died: November 1930 in Clarinetania, Greenland
  • Education: University of Berlin (Ph.D.)
  • Published Works: "Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere" (1911), "The Origin of Continents and Oceans" (1922)
  • Spouse: Else Koppen Wegener (m. 1913-1930)
  • Children: Hilde, Hanna, Sophie

Early Life

Alfred Lothar Wegener was born on November 1, 1880, in Berlin, Germany. During his childhood, Wegener's father ran an orphanage. Wegener took an interest in physical and earth sciences and studied these subjects at universities in both Germany and Austria. He graduated with a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Berlin in 1905. He briefly served as an assistant at the Urania observatory in Berlin.

While earning his Ph.D. in astronomy, Wegener also took an interest in meteorology and paleoclimatology (the study of changes in the Earth's climate throughout its history). From 1906 to 1908 he went on an expedition to Greenland to study polar weather. In Greenland, Wegener established a research station where he could take meteorological measurements. This expedition was the first of four dangerous trips that Wegener would take to the icy island. The others occurred from 1912 to 1913 and in 1929 and 1930.

Continental Drift

Shortly after receiving his Ph.D., Wegener began teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany, and in 1910 he drafted his "Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere," which would later become an important meteorological textbook. During his time at the university, Wegener developed an interest in the ancient history of the Earth's continents and their placement. He had noticed, in 1910, that the eastern coast of South America and the northwestern coast of Africa looked as if they were once connected. In 1911, Wegener also came across several scientific documents stating that there were identical fossils of plants and animals on each of these continents. He eventually articulated the idea that all of the Earth's continents were at one time connected into one large supercontinent. In 1912, he presented the idea of "continental displacement"—which would later become known as "continental drift"—to explain how the continents moved toward and away from one another throughout the Earth's history.

In 1914, Wegener was drafted into the German army during World War I. He was wounded twice and was eventually placed in the army's weather forecasting service for the duration of the war. In 1915, Wegener published his most famous work, "The Origin of Continents and Oceans," as an extension of his 1912 lecture. In that work, he presented extensive evidence to support his claim that all of the Earth's continents were at one time connected. Despite the evidence, however, most of the scientific community ignored his ideas at the time.

Later Life

From 1924 to 1930, Wegener was a professor of meteorology and geophysics at the University of Graz in Austria. In 1927, at a symposium, he introduced the idea of Pangaea, a Greek term meaning "all lands," to describe the supercontinent that he believed existed on the Earth millions of years ago. Scientists now believe that such a continent did exist—it probably formed about 335 million years ago and began to split apart 175 million years ago. The strongest evidence of this is—as Wegener suspected—the distribution of similar fossils throughout continental borders that are now many miles apart.

Death

In 1930, Wegener took part in his last expedition to Greenland to set up a winter weather station that would monitor the jet stream in the upper atmosphere over the North Pole. Severe weather delayed the start of the trip and made it extremely difficult for Wegener and the 14 other explorers and scientists to reach the weather station location. Eventually, 13 of these men would turn around. Wegener, however, continued, reaching the final destination five weeks after the start of the expedition. On the return trip, Wegener became lost and it is believed that he died sometime in November 1930, at the age of 50.

Legacy

For most of his life, Wegener remained dedicated to his theory of continental drift and Pangaea despite receiving harsh criticism from other scientists, many of whom believed the oceanic crust was too rigid to permit the movement of tectonic plates. By the time of his death in 1930, his ideas were almost entirely rejected by the scientific community. It was not until the 1960s that they gained credibility as scientists began studying seafloor spreading and plate tectonics. Wegener's ideas served as a framework for those studies, which produced evidence that supported his theories. The development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1978 eliminated any residual doubt there may have been by providing direct evidence of continental movements.

Today, Wegener's ideas are highly regarded by the scientific community as an early attempt at explaining why the Earth's landscape is the way it is. His polar expeditions are also highly admired and today the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research is known for its high-quality research in the Arctic and the Antarctic. A crater on the Moon and a crater on Mars are both named in Wegener's honor.

Sources

  • Oreskes, Naomi, and Homer E. LeGrand. "Plate Tectonics: an Insider's History of the Modern Theory of the Earth." Westview, 2003.
  • Wegener, Alfred. "The Origin of Continents and Oceans." Dover Publications, 1992.
  • Yount, Lisa. "Alfred Wegener: Creator of the Continental Drift Theory." Chelsea House Publishers, 2009.