What Is Continental Drift and Who Discovered It?

accepted idea of land masses in motion was slow to catch on

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Plate tectonics is now recognized as the Earth’s dominant geological process. The continents of Earth are moving, albeit, at an unbelievably slow pace. Why did we take so long to accept this theory?

Photograph of the German Alfred Wegener , expedition and overwintering in Greenland
German scientist Alfred Wegener theorized that a supercontinent once existed before continental drift separated the land mass into seven continents. Photo by Loewe, Fritz; Georgi, Johannes; Sorge, Ernst; Wegener, Alfred Lothar / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the 21st century, it’s well accepted that the land masses we now call continents once fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Over the course of the Earth’s lifespan, those pieces have split and drifted apart. Due to the incredibly long time it took to get where we are today, not all of us think about where we’re headed.

The East African Rift System is slowly seeing a separation between East Africa and the main body of the continent, only separating at a rate of a few millimeters per year. However, in 5 to 10 million years, a large river could cut most of Africa off from its connection to the Middle East, the European mainland, and Asia.

The widely accepted ideas of tectonic plates and continental drift only came to fruition in the 1960s. In his video series The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, Dr. Robert M. Hazen, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University, discusses where these ideas came from.

Who Discovered Continental Drift?

“Even after the field of geology got its name in the 18th century and began to be pursued as a science, most geologists weren’t thinking about correlating features across oceans,” Dr. Hazen said. “The very first detailed trans-Atlantic geological comparisons were made by a meteorologist—It was the .”

Wegener wasn’t the first to notice how the East Coast of the Americas seemed to fit with their western counterparts in Europe and Africa. However, Wegener noticed further possible connections among East Africa, Antarctica, India, and Australia. By piecing together all the major continents, Wegener theorized a supercontinent and gave it the name Pangaea.

“Wegener also realized that one could test the hypothesis that the continents were all once joined together by looking for identical marginal features,” Dr. Hazen said. “He and others cataloged evidence from recently published geological surveys of coastal regions of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. These treatises, published in many languages by many independent authors, point to numerous intriguing correlations across the wide Atlantic Ocean.”

Wegener persisted with the theory of continental drift, which basically states that the Earth’s continents have been moving—and continue to move—across the Earth’s surface.

Why Didn’t People Believe in Continental Drift?

Wegener’s hypothesis was first published in 1915. Unfortunately, few listened. Why? He had further developed the idea of the continents as puzzle pieces, implying that they were once joined but had since separated.

Although his ideas gained a bit of interest among some paleontologists and geologists, the scientific community at large took more convincing.

“In spite of the growing evidence that the two sides of the Atlantic somehow match up, most members of the Earth science community were unpersuaded—and there was good reason for this skepticism,” Dr. Hazen said. “Newton’s first law of motion tells us that nothing happens without a force, so if continents were somehow drifting apart then there must be some huge force at work. Wegener simply had no answer for that objection.”

Wegener may have been right, but he had no evidence to prove his claims, thereby, earning little besides skepticism and contempt from scientists of the day. It wasn’t until emerging technologies from World War II, like SONAR, showed mid-oceanic rifts deep underwater that Wegener’s ideas gained traction. In the 1960s, plate tectonics were accepted into modern geology and geophysics, and continental drift along with them.

The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily