Alfred Wegener: The German Meteorologist Who Theorized Pangea

Digital illustration of map showing the Earth's tectonic plates
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Alfred Wegener 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 very well accepted by the scientific community.

Wegener's Early Life, Pangaea, and Continental Drift

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 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.

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 1906-1908 he took an expedition to Greenland to study polar weather. This expedition was the first of four that Wegener would take to Greenland. The others occurred from 1912-1913 and in 1929 and 1930.

Shortly after receiving his Ph.D., Wegener began teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany. During his time there he gained an interest in the ancient history of the Earth's continents and their placement after noticing in 1910 that the eastern coast of South America and the northwestern coast of Africa looked like 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 and he claimed 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, Wegener presented extensive evidence to support his claim that all of the Earth's continents were at one time connected. Despite the evidence, most of the scientific community ignored his ideas at the time.

Wegener's Later Life and Honors

From 1924 to 1930 Wegener was a professor of meteorology and geophysics at the University of Graz in Austria. In 1927 he introduced the idea of Pangaea, a Greek term meaning "all lands," to describe the supercontinent that existed on the Earth millions of years ago at a symposium.

In 1930, Wegener took part in his last expedition to Greenland the 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 that trip and made it extremely difficult for Wegener and 14 other explorers and scientists to reach the weather station location. Eventually, 13 of these men would turn around but Wegener continued and got to the location five weeks after starting the expedition. On the return trip, Wegener became lost and it is believed that he died in November 1930.

For most of his life, Alfred Lothar Wegener was interested in his theory of continental drift and Pangaea despite harsh criticism at the time. 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 at that time began studying seafloor spreading and eventually plate tectonics. Wegener's ideas served as a framework for those studies.

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 regarded and today the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research is known for high-quality research in the Arctic and Antarctic.