Alfred Wegener: Continental Drift Theory

(ORDO NEWS) — Modern schoolchildren are well aware of the name of Alfred Wegener. In geography lessons, they study his theory of continental drift. But 70 years ago no one even heard of a German scientist. The struggle between the supporters of Wegener’s theory and its opponents, which lasted for almost half a century, ended only in the mid-1960s. The theory finally gained acceptance, and the name of its creator got into textbooks.

The family of the Berlin biblical scholar and teacher of ancient languages ​​Richard Wegener had five children. The youngest, Alfred Lothar, was born on November 1, 1880. His brother Kurt was two years older, but from childhood the brothers were inseparable like twins. Together they came up with adventures, and since 1886, when my father bought a country house near Rheinsberg, they zealously set about exploring the surroundings.

Young man from Berlin

At the end of the 19th century, the Cologne gymnasium in Berlin, where their father assigned them, was considered one of the best schools, providing not only classical education, but also excellent sports training. One of the disciplines of this school was fencing. If Kurt did not show much success in his studies, then Alfred graduated as the best in his class. Then he entered the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin. There he began to study mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, but after studying for the whole semester, he transferred to the University of Heidelberg, where he indulged in all the vices of a real bursh: he did not go to lectures, but instead became addicted to beer and foil competitions. Such a life, of course, could not last long. Innsbruck followed Heidelberg, then Alfred returned to Berlin and seriously studied astronomy.

Meteorology attracted him much more. Moreover, brother Kurt worked at the Lindeberg meteorological station, transferred there from Berlin. This attractive place was called the Prussian Royal Aeronautical Observatory. Research, in contrast to astronomical observations, was much more dynamic: scientists launched meteorological balloons, measured wind speed using kites, and, in addition, used balloons. The latter just attracted the Wegener brothers. They enthusiastically climbed in balloons and tested navigation devices. The flight conditions were terrible. The brothers flew through wet clouds, froze from the wind and cold, and once, carried away by work, did not even notice that they had set a world record for the duration of the flight: they were in the air for 52 hours and 30 minutes.

Greenland, war, greenland

The brothers were not afraid of the cold. Moreover, they dreamed of going to the icy expanses of Greenland blown by all the winds. In 1906, immediately after the triumphant flight, Alfred Wegener went there with the expedition of the Dane Ludwig Mülius-Eriksen. The Danish polar explorer was going to explore the northeastern coast of Greenland. Wegener rode with him as a meteorologist. He built the first meteorological station in Greenland, studied air currents by launching kites and balloons into the sky, and reached 81 degrees north latitude on a sleigh. But for Ludwig himself, the expedition turned out to be extremely unsuccessful: he died along with two more polar explorers. The second attempt to conquer Greenland took place only seven years later. During this time, Wegener managed to settle in Marburg and become engaged to Elsa Köppen, the daughter of his former research advisor Vladimir Köppen, originating from the Russian Germans. The engagement was celebrated with a balloon flight.

For the second expedition, Wegener even moved the wedding from 1912 to 1913. Greenland was more important than Elsa Köppen. Alfred went to this snowy country together with a friend from the first expedition, Johan Koch. In September, they landed on the Greenland coast and set up camp, although it was not without misadventures: on the very first day, Wegener severely injured his leg. The group of researchers overwintered on the island, and in the spring crossed Greenland at its widest point. There was not enough food for this transition, I had to eat Icelandic horses and dogs. But everyone returned from the trip alive. In Germany they were greeted as heroes, Llfred and Elsa got married almost immediately, he started lecturing at the University of Marburg … And then the First World War broke out.

The professor went to the front. He ended up in Belgium, one of the most violent theaters of military operations. The first wound was in the arm, spent two weeks at home, and when he returned, he was again wounded. This time in the neck. After the second injury, he was sent to a safer service – to compile weather reports. This is probably what saved his life. After the war, Wegener worked in the meteorological service, lectured at the University of Hamburg, then moved with his family to Graz, but did not forget about Greenland. He was only waiting for the opportunity to organize a new expedition. And such an opportunity presented itself in 1929.

The participants of the exploration trip covered 850 kilometers of the route, found a place for the base camp, tested snowmobiles, ice drills and new seismographs. It would seem that they had prepared everything for the main expedition of 1930.

But the big expedition was extremely unsuccessful. The pack ice did not allow landing at the estimated time, the schedule was shifted by almost 40 days, the snowmobiles were equipped with low-power engines and quickly broke down, and besides, food supplies for the winter in Eismitt were not enough. Wegener was well aware of the trap his people had fallen into, and together with Fritz Leve and the Greenlandian Rasmus Willumsen, he delivered them food on a dog sled. In Eismitt, Wegener celebrated the round date of his birth – exactly 50 years. And then he and Rasmus set off on the way back. And they were gone forever. If Wegener’s body was found: a young Greenlandic buried him in the snow

And stuck crossed skis instead of a monument, the place of death of Rasmus is unknown. Kurt, who searched Greenland for his traces, stopped searching. He did not find Wegener’s notes either: they are buried somewhere along with his deceased assistant …

Discord concept

No one knows what was in Wegener’s notes, apart from the expedition diary. Perhaps, the completion of the main scientific work of his life – the theory of continental drift. For the first time, he became interested in this issue back in 1911, having familiarized himself with the criticism of the then generally accepted hypothesis of the existence of a land bridge between Europe and America in antiquity. A year later, in his report, these words sounded for the first time – “continental drift”, and in 1915, at the height of the war, he published a small brochure of 90 pages “The Origin of Continents and Oceans.” It expounded a very simple idea: once the land was a single continent, and it floated on the surface of the mantle, like an ice floe in water.

Then tectonic processes tore apart the continent, and its parts began to diverge, but fault lines remained, and the fossil and currently existing flora and fauna, minerals and minerals, mountain ranges and ocean shelves indicate the movements of parts of a single whole and the time of further transformations. Wegener’s monograph also went through several transformations. It was reprinted in 1920, supplemented in 1922 and finally improved in 1929, before the expedition from which he never returned. The latest edition has grown to 200 pages. The work of Wegener was accepted by his contemporary colleagues with hostility. Many laughed openly. Especially geologists and physicists. Only studies of the ocean floor in the 1960s convinced opponents that Wegener was right. However, Kurt and Elsa never doubted it …


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