Alfred Wegener is my hero. He never gave up trying to prove his theories about geology and meteorology. He died trying. January 6 is the date that he first presented his theory of Continental Drift. He was long dead by the time scientists had enough evidence to see that he had been mostly right. Wegener helped bring geology into its Enlightenment. I declare January 6 to be Wegener Day. Woohoo!
During his lifetime he was primarily known for his achievements in meteorology and as a pioneer of polar research, but today he is most remembered for advancing the theory of continental drift (Kontinentalverschiebung) in 1912, which hypothesized that the continents were slowly drifting around the Earth. His hypothesis was controversial and not widely accepted until the 1950s, when numerous discoveries such as palaeomagnetism provided strong support for continental drift, and thereby a substantial basis for today’s model of Plate tectonics. Wegener was involved in several expeditions to Greenland to study polar air circulation before the existence of the jet stream was accepted. Expedition participants made many meteorological observations and achieved the first-ever overwintering on the inland Greenland ice sheet as well as the first-ever boring of ice cores on a moving Arctic glacier.
Alfred Wegener first thought of this idea by noticing that the different large landmasses of the Earth almost fit together like a jigsaw. The Continental shelf of the Americas fit closely to Africa and Europe, and Antarctica, Australia, India and Madagascar fit next to the tip of Southern Africa. But Wegener only took action after reading a paper in Autumn 1911 and seeing that a flooded land-bridge contradicts isostasy. Wegener’s main interest was meteorology, and he wanted to join the Denmark-Greenland expedition scheduled for mid-1912. So he hurried up to present his Continental Drift hypothesis on January 6, 1912. He analyzed either side of the Atlantic Ocean for rock type, geological structures and fossils. He noticed that there was a significant similarity between matching sides of the continents, especially in fossil plants. His hypothesis was thus strongly supported by the physical evidence, and was a pioneering attempt at a rational explanation.
From 1912, Wegener publicly advocated the theory of “continental drift“, arguing that all the continents were once joined together in a single landmass and have drifted apart. He supposed the cause might be the centrifugal force of the Earth’s rotation (“Polflucht“) or the astronomical precession. Wegener also speculated on sea-floor spreading and the role of the mid-ocean ridges, stating: the Mid-Atlantic Ridge … zone in which the floor of the Atlantic, as it keeps spreading, is continuously tearing open and making space for fresh, relatively fluid and hot sima [rising] from depth. However, he did not pursue these ideas in his later works.
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 continent, he named “Urkontinent” (German word meaning “origin of the continents”, in a way equivalent to the Greek “Pangaea“, meaning “All-Lands” or “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.
In his work, Wegener presented a large amount of very strong evidence in support of continental drift, but the mechanism remained elusive. While his ideas attracted a few early supporters such as Alexander Du Toit from South Africa and Arthur Holmes in England, the hypothesis was generally met with skepticism from largely conservative scientists, who were resistant to any change in the status quo. The one American edition of Wegener’s work, published in 1925, was received so poorly that the American Association of Petroleum Geologists organized a symposium specifically in opposition to the continental drift hypothesis. Its opponents could argue, as did the Leipziger geologist Franz Kossmat, that the oceanic crust was too “firm” for the continents to “simply plough through”, a suggestion which ignored the plasticity of all rocks at depth and at high temperatures and pressures. The comment also ignored the vast time-scale over which continental drift has occurred, effectively the total age of the earth of about 4.5 billion years.
In 1943 George Gaylord Simpson wrote a vehement attack on the theory (as well as the rival theory of sunken land bridges) and put forward his own permanentist views. Alexander du Toit wrote a rejoinder in the following year, but G.G.Simpson’s influence was so powerful that even in countries previously sympathetic towards continental drift, like Australia, Wegener’s hypothesis fell out of favour.
Fourth and last expedition
Wegener’s last Greenland expedition was in 1930. The 14 participants under his leadership were to establish three permanent stations from which the thickness of the Greenland ice sheet could be measured and year-round Arctic weather observations made. Wegener felt personally responsible for the expedition’s success, as the German government had contributed $120,000 ($1.5 million in 2007 dollars) at a time when Germans were starving to death owing to post-war shortages. Success depended on enough provisions being transferred from West camp to Eismitte (“mid-ice”) for two men to winter there, and this was a factor in the decision that led to his death. Owing to a late thaw, the expedition was six weeks behind schedule and, as summer ended, the men at Eismitte sent a message that they had insufficient fuel and so would return on October 20.
On September 24, although the route markers were by now largely buried under snow, Wegener set out with thirteen Greenlanders and his meteorologist Fritz Loewe to supply the camp by dog sled. During the journey the temperature reached −60 °C (−76 °F) and Loewe’s toes became so frostbitten they had to be amputated with a penknife without anesthetic. Twelve of the Greenlanders returned to West camp. On October 19, the remaining three members of the expedition reached Eismitte. There being only enough supplies for three at Eismitte, Wegener and Rasmus Villumsen took two dog sleds and made for West camp. They took no food for the dogs and killed them one by one to feed the rest until they could run only one sled. While Villumsen rode the sled, Wegener had to use skis. They never reached the camp. The expedition was completed by his brother, Kurt Wegener.
Six months later, on May 12, 1931, Wegener’s body was found halfway between Eismitte and West camp. It had been buried (by Villumsen) with great care and a pair of skis marked the grave site. Wegener had been fifty years of age and a heavy smoker and it was believed that he had died of heart failure brought on by overexertion. His body was reburied in the same spot by the team that found him and the grave was marked with a large cross. After burying Wegener, Villumsen had resumed his journey to West camp but was never seen again. Villumsen was twenty three when he died and it is estimated that his body, and Wegener’s diary, now lie under more than 100 metres (330 ft) of accumulated ice and snow.