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Alfred Lothar Wegener— Germany’s Polar Explorer and Mover of Continents

| November 11, 2016 | 0 Comments

From Pangea to plate tectonics, his out-of-the-box thinking set the foundation for a new line of thought on the Earth’s geology.

By Peter Vogt

On 6 January, 1912, an athletic young Berliner with piercing blue-gray eyes got up for his turn to lecture the German Geological Society meeting in Frankfurt. It was Dr. Alfred Wegener (b. 1880), an astronomer turned meteorologist, an adventurer and explorer.

Wegener, not a published geologist, was unknown to most of his Frankfurt audience: that is, except for those who had read about his research balloon flight of early April, 1906—setting a new world record (52-1/2 hours aloft) as reported in headlines around the world. Even the Kaiser had been thrilled, especially because a Frenchman held the old record. Or perhaps the geologists had read about Wegener’s recent adventures as meteorologist and lone German on the Danmark expedition (1906-1908) to unexplored northeast Greenland. This was Wegener’s first of three polar expeditions—he learned to launch weather balloons and kites into the Arctic night, drive dogsleds the Inuit way, untangle their frozen traces, speak Danish, suffer frostbite, and hunt walrus, muskox and polar bears to feed expedition dogs.

But Wegener was not in Frankfurt to tell geologists about the Greenland atmosphere and his adventures there. Instead, he laid out a stunning out-of-box geologic theory:  that all the world’s continents had once formed a supercontinent he dubbed Pangea, which broke into pieces that then dispersed, some moving thousands of miles.

Writing to a young Hamburg teacher (Else Koeppen, his future wife)  soon after Christmas 1910,  Wegener had revealed he got the “drift” idea  by perusing a world atlas—and noting how the western edges of Africa and Europe matched the eastern edges of the Americas. He realized that coastlines shift back and forth due to changing sea levels, so that the crustal boundary between continents and ocean basins must really be near the sharp edge of the continental shelf.

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