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Alfred Wegener
Alfred Wegener ca.1924-30.jpg
Alfred Wegener, about 1925
Born 1 November 1880
Died 13 November 1930
Nationality German
Alma mater University of Berlin
Known for continental drift
Scientific career
Fields meteorology
Gondwana fossil map ger
Fossil records suggesting that continents now separated were once together: see Pangaea
Antonio Snider-Pellegrini Opening of the Atlantic
First known illustration of the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, by Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, 1858.
Alfred-Wegener-Gedenktafel, Wallstraße 42, Berlin-Mitte, 533-639
Commemorative plaque on Wegener's former school in Wallstrasse

Alfred Lothar Wegener (1 November 1880 – 13 November 1930) was a German scientist and meteorologist. He is most notable for his theory of continental drift, which he proposed in December 1912. This was the idea that the continents were slowly drifting around the Earth. He also had ideas about why the continents drift, which other scientists thought were impossible. His hypothesis was not accepted until the 1950s. Then several discoveries gave evidence of continental drift, and of the actual causes.

Wegener was born in Berlin and in 1904 he earned his PhD in Astronomy at the University of Berlin. As a reserve officer of the German Army he was called up in 1914 to fight in World War I. He was severely wounded in Belgium and transferred to the army weather service. After the war he mainly did weather work.

Early life and education

Alfred Wegener was born in Berlin on 1 November 1880 as the youngest of five children in a clergyman's family. His father, Richard Wegener, was a theologian and teacher of classical languages at the Berlinisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster. In 1886 his family purchased a former manor house near Rheinsberg, which they used as a vacation home. Today there is an Alfred Wegener Memorial site and tourist information office in a nearby building that was once the local schoolhouse. He was cousin to film pioneer Paul Wegener.

Alfred-Wegener-Gedenktafel, Wallstraße 42, Berlin-Mitte, 533-639
Commemorative plaque on Wegener's former school in Wallstrasse

Wegener attended school at the Köllnisches Gymnasium on Wallstrasse in Berlin (a fact which is memorialised on a plaque on this protected building, now a school of music), graduating as the best in his class.

Wegener studied Physics, meteorology and Astronomy in Berlin, Heidelberg and Innsbruck. His teachers in Berlin included Wilhelm Foerster for astronomy, and Max Planck for thermodynamics.

Wegener took away from Planck’s teaching a strong commitment to brevity in the service of clarity. He adopted a caution, bordering on aloofness, in offering mechanical models and causal explanations, especially of the sort that only confirmed what one knew from experience without adding anything to the facts. [...] Most importantly, he heeded Planck’s injunction never to consider any form of a theory as final, and to think of “good theory” simply as that mode of treating phenomena that corresponded to the actual state of a science at that moment—and never to one's aspirations for it.

In 1905 Wegener became an assistant at the Aeronautisches Observatorium Lindenberg near Beeskow. He worked there with his brother Kurt, two years his senior, who was likewise a scientist with an interest in meteorology and polar research. The two pioneered the use of weather balloons to track air masses. On a balloon ascent undertaken to carry out meteorological investigations and to test a celestial navigation method using a particular type of quadrant (“Libellenquadrant”), the Wegener brothers set a new record for a continuous balloon flight, remaining aloft 52.5 hours from 5–7 April 1906.

Plate tectonics theory

The theory had been proposed before, more than once. The first time was by the mapmaker Abraham Ortelius in the 16th century.

Wegener's theory

Wegener used geologic, fossil, and glacial evidence from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean to support his theory of continental drift. For example, he said that there were geological similarities between the Appalachian Mountains in North America, and the Scottish Highlands. Also, he said that the rock strata in South Africa and Brazil were similar.

He believed these similarities could be explained only if these geologic features were once part of the same continent. Wegener said that because they are less dense, continents float on top of the denser rock of the ocean floor, and move across the ocean floor rock. Although continental drift explained many of Wegener's observations, he could not find scientific evidence to make a complete explanation of how continents move.


The British geologist Arthur Holmes championed the theory of continental drift at a time when it was unfashionable. He proposed in 1931 that the Earth's mantle contained convection cells that dissipated radioactive heat and moved the crust at the surface. His Principles of Physical Geology, ending with a chapter on continental drift, was published in 1944.

However, most Earth scientists and palaeontologists did not believe Wegener's theory and thought it was foolish. Some critics thought that giant land bridges could explain the similarities among fossils in South America and Africa. Others argued that Wegener's theory did not explain the forces that would have been needed to move continents to such great distances. Wegener thought that the forces that moved the continents could be caused by the rotation of the Earth and stellar precession and that same forces made earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.


During the 1950s, in the mid-atlantic ridge discoveries of sea-floor spreading and magnetic reversal proved that Wegener's theory was real and led to the theory of plate tectonics, though his proposed causes were mistaken. Today geologists say that continents are actually parts of moving tectonic plates that float on the asthenosphere, a layer of partly molten rock.


In 1913, Wegener married Else Köppen, the daughter of his former teacher and mentor, the meteorologist Wladimir Köppen. The young pair lived in Marburg, where Wegener resumed his university lectureship. There his two older daughters were born, Hilde (1914–1936) and Sophie ("Käte", 1918–2012). Their third daughter Hanna Charlotte ("Lotte", 1920–1989) was born in Hamburg. Lotte would in 1938 marry the famous Austrian mountaineer and adventurer Heinrich Harrer, while in 1939, Käte married Siegfried Uiberreither, Austrian Nazi Gauleiter of Styria.


Wegener died in Greenland in November 1930 while returning from an expedition to bring food to a group of researchers camped in the middle of an icecap. He supplied the camp successfully, but there was not enough food at the camp for him to stay there. He and a colleague, Rasmus Villumsen, took dog sleds to travel to another camp – which they never reached. Villumsen buried Wegener's body with great care, a pair of skis marking the grave site. After burying Wegener, Villumsen resumed his journey to West camp, but he was never seen again. Six months later, on 12 May 1931, the grave was discovered halfway between Eismitte and West camp. Expedition members built a pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the ice and snow, and Alfred Wegener's body was laid to rest in it. Wegener had been 50 years of age and a heavy smoker, and it was believed that he had died of heart failure brought on by overexertion. Villumsen was 23 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.

Awards and honours

The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, was established in 1980 on Wegener's centenary. It awards the Wegener Medal in his name. The crater Wegener on the Moon and the crater Wegener on Mars, as well as the asteroid 29227 Wegener and the peninsula where he died in Greenland (Wegener Peninsula near Ummannaq, 71°12′N 51°50′W / 71.200°N 51.833°W / 71.200; -51.833), are named after him.

The European Geosciences Union sponsors an Alfred Wegener Medal & Honorary Membership "for scientists who have achieved exceptional international standing in atmospheric, hydrological or ocean sciences, defined in their widest senses, for their merit and their scientific achievements."

Images for kids

See also

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