6 January 1912

The German geophysicist Alfred Wegener first describes his theory of continental drift.

article is about the development of the continental drift hypothesis before 1958. For the contemporary theory, see plate tectonics. For the Russell Banks novel, see Continental Drift. For the fourth film in the Ice Age franchise, see Ice Age: Continental Drift.

The continental drift of the last 250 million years

Antonio Snider-Pellegrini’s Illustration of the closed and opened Atlantic Ocean.
Continental drift is the theory that the Earth’s continents have moved over geologic time relative to each other, thus appearing to have “drifted” across the ocean bed. The speculation that continents might have ‘drifted’ was first put forward by Abraham Ortelius in 1596. The concept was independently and more fully developed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, but his theory was rejected by many for lack of any motive mechanism. Arthur Holmes later proposed mantle convection for that mechanism. The idea of continental drift has since been subsumed by the theory of plate tectonics, which explains that the continents move by riding on plates of the Earth’s lithosphere.

Abraham Ortelius, Theodor Christoph Lilienthal, Alexander von Humboldt, Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, and others had noted earlier that the shapes of continents on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean seem to fit together. W. J. Kious described Ortelius’ thoughts in this way:

Abraham Ortelius in his work Thesaurus Geographicus … suggested that the Americas were “torn away from Europe and Africa … by earthquakes and floods” and went on to say: “The vestiges of the rupture reveal themselves if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers carefully the coasts of the three.”

In 1889, Alfred Russel Wallace remarked, “It was formerly a very general belief, even amongst geologists, that the great features of the earth’s surface, no less than the smaller ones, were subject to continual mutations, and that during the course of known geological time the continents and great oceans had, again and again, changed places with each other.”[8] He quotes Charles Lyell as saying, “Continents, therefore, although permanent for whole geological epochs, shift their positions entirely in the course of ages.”[9] and claims that the first to throw doubt on this was James Dwight Dana in 1849.

In his Manual of Geology, Dana wrote, “The continents and oceans had their general outline or form defined in earliest time. This has been proved with respect to North America from the position and distribution of the first beds of the Silurian – those of the Potsdam epoch. … and this will probably prove to the case in Primordial time with the other continents also”. Dana was enormously influential in America – his Manual of Mineralogy is still in print in revised form – and the theory became known as Permanence theory.

This appeared to be confirmed by the exploration of the deep sea beds conducted by the Challenger expedition, 1872-6, which showed that contrary to expectation, land debris brought down by rivers to the ocean is deposited comparatively close to the shore on what is now known as the continental shelf. This suggested that the oceans were a permanent feature of the Earth’s surface, and did not change places with the continents.

Apart from the earlier speculations mentioned in the previous section, the idea that the American continents had once formed a single landmass together with Europe and Asia before assuming their present shapes and positions was speculated by several scientists before Alfred Wegener’s 1912 paper. Although Wegener’s theory was formed independently and was more complete than those of his predecessors, Wegener later credited a number of past authors with similar ideas: Franklin Coxworthy, Roberto Mantovani, William Henry Pickering and Frank Bursley Taylor. In addition, Eduard Suess had proposed a supercontinent Gondwana in 1885 and the Tethys Ocean in 1893, assuming a land-bridge between the present continents submerged in the form of a geosyncline, and John Perry had written an 1895 paper proposing that the earth’s interior was fluid, and disagreeing with Lord Kelvin on the age of the earth.

For example: the similarity of southern continent geological formations had led Roberto Mantovani to conjecture in 1889 and 1909 that all the continents had once been joined into a supercontinent; Wegener noted the similarity of Mantovani’s and his own maps of the former positions of the southern continents. In Mantovani’s conjecture, this continent broke due to volcanic activity caused by thermal expansion, and the new continents drifted away from each other because of further expansion of the rip-zones, where the oceans now lie. This led Mantovani to propose an Expanding Earth theory which has since been shown to be incorrect.

Continental drift without expansion was proposed by Frank Bursley Taylor, who suggested in 1908 that the continents were moved into their present positions by a process of “continental creep”. In a later paper he proposed that this occurred by their being dragged towards the equator by tidal forces during the hypothesized capture of the moon in the Cretaceous, resulting in “general crustal creep” toward the equator. Although his proposed mechanism was wrong, he was the first to realize the insight that one of the effects of continental motion would be the formation of mountains, and attributed the formation of the Himalayas to the collision between the Indian subcontinent with Asia. Wegener said that of all those theories, Taylor’s, although not fully developed, had the most similarities to his own. In the mid-20th century, the theory of continental drift was referred to as the “Taylor-Wegener hypothesis”, although this terminology eventually fell out of common use.

Alfred Wegener first presented his hypothesis to the German Geological Society on 6 January 1912. His hypothesis was that the continents had once formed a single landmass, called Pangaea, before breaking apart and drifting to their present locations.

Wegener was the first to use the phrase “continental drift” and formally publish the hypothesis that the continents had somehow “drifted” apart. Although he presented much evidence for continental drift, he was unable to provide a convincing explanation for the physical processes which might have caused this drift. His suggestion that the continents had been pulled apart by the centrifugal pseudoforce of the Earth’s rotation or by a small component of astronomical precession was rejected, as calculations showed that the force was not sufficient. The Polflucht hypothesis was also studied by Paul Sophus Epstein in 1920 and found to be implausible.

The theory of continental drift was not accepted for many years. One problem was that a plausible driving force was missing. A second problem was that Wegener’s estimate of the velocity of continental motion, 250 cm/year, was implausibly high. It also did not help that Wegener was not a geologist. Other geologists also believed that the evidence that Wegener had provided was not sufficient. It is now accepted that the plates carrying the continents do move across the Earth’s surface, although not as fast as Wegener believed; ironically one of the chief outstanding questions is the one Wegener failed to resolve: what is the nature of the forces propelling the plates?

The British geologist Arthur Holmes championed the theory of continental drift at a time when it was deeply unfashionable. He proposed in 1931 that the Earth’s mantle contained convection cells which 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.

Geological maps of the time showed huge land bridges spanning the Atlantic and Indian oceans to account for the similarities of fauna and flora and the divisions of the Asian continent in the Permian era but failing to account for glaciation in India, Australia and South Africa.

Geophysicist Jack Oliver is credited with providing seismologic evidence supporting plate tectonics which encompassed and superseded continental drift with the article “Seismology and the New Global Tectonics”, published in 1968, using data collected from seismologic stations, including those he set up in the South Pacific.

It is now known that there are two kinds of crust: continental crust and oceanic crust. Continental crust is inherently lighter and its composition is different from oceanic crust, but both kinds reside above a much deeper “plastic” mantle. Oceanic crust is created at spreading centers, and this, along with subduction, drives the system of plates in a chaotic manner, resulting in continuous orogeny and areas of isostatic imbalance. The theory of plate tectonics explains all this, including the movement of the continents, better than Wegener’s theory.