Wegener’s Death and Drift’s Hiatus

Alfred Wegener, 1930, in Greenland

Alfred Wegener, 1930, in Greenland

Over the past few days, I’ve written about Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory, which is celebrating its 100th year as a spunky idea that explains a lot of our geology. From mountains to earthquakes and deep sea rifts to island arc volcanoes, it’s all tied together in plate tectonics, which began just over a hundred years ago as continental drift.

If you’ve been following my past week’s  posts, you saw Alfred Wegener enter our story as a meteorologist, you saw how fossils and climate inspired his theory, then looked at the publication of Wegener’s papers and book  between 1912 and 1915, and yesterday, you read about the ugly rejection of his drift theory.  Now I’d like to give you a bit about Wegener’s death in Greenland and its immediate impact.

NYT headline

March 30, 1930 – NYT

Wegener was on his fourth scientific expedition to the Arctic and he was director of the Danish-Greenland polar research camp. He was much better known around the world for his northern exploration than for his relatively obscure ideas about drifting continents. In fact, the New York Times covered his departure at the start of Wegener’s last trip and charitably did not mention his drift theory at all in their lengthy science article.

Wegener’s fourth mission to Greenland included testing a new seismic method to measure the thickness of the icecap that covered the island. He believed it was much thicker than the assumed 3,600 feet previously measured. Sending sound waves into the ice and timing their returning echoes with seismic equipment would give him a better estimate of the icecap’s thickness. The expedition also involved preparations to establish a permanent station that would gather continuous meteorological data. But food shortages, extremely cold weather, and unpredictable blizzards put outlying camps at risk.

Alfred Wegener and his colleague Rasmus Villumsen were last seen on Wegener’s 50th birthday, November 1, 1930.  The day following his birthday, Wegener and Villumsen set off  to deliver supplies to a small outlying camp which had been cut off by foul weather. The two were overtaken by a blizzard. Wegener’s body was not found until the following spring, on May 12, 1931. He was lying upon a reindeer hide, placed there by Villumsen, who was never found. When news of his death reached the world, it was front-page news. The New York Times headline read: “Wegener Gave Up His Life to Save Greenland Aides; Left So Food Would Last”.

Fritz Loewe, right, suffering frostbite

Fritz Loewe, right, suffering frostbite

Upon Wegener’s death, leadership of the Greenland expedition passed to his friend Fritz Loewe. Loewe had trained as a lawyer in Berlin, but developed a passion for science and exploration, earning a PhD in physics. He became a meteorologist and understudy to Alfred Wegener. Before the expedition, Loewe had earned the Iron Cross as a young soldier in the German army and had already spent time in the arctic.

During the fatal 1930 expedition, Loewe’s feet froze and a colleague at their Greenland camp clipped off nine of Loewe’s toes with tin-snips and a pocket knife to avoid gangrene. Returning to Germany, Loewe, a Jew, was soon dismissed from his post with the Meteorological Service. He left with his wife and two young daughters for England. He finally found permanent work, in 1937, as a lecturer in Melbourne, Australia, where Loewe co-discovered the southern jet stream. Few students knew the remarkable background of their professor with the awkward gait who clomped the university corridors for 25 years.

Following Wegener, only a handful of geologists were willing to inherit the orphaned continental drift theory. Arthur Holmes, Alexander du Toit, and Reginald Daly spring to mind. They all believed the data and accepted the theory, but they each had busy jobs as geologists – proving drift theory was an interest, but neither an occupation nor obsession. Drift theory did not take a complete hiatus, but the years between 1930 and 1955 saw very few converts to the cause.

Arthur Holmes, 1912

Arthur Holmes, 1912

Arthur Holmes was born on the moors in north England and educated in London At age 20, he discovered a way to measure the age of the Earth using radioactive decay. He was the first to know that the planet is over a billion years old. Then he figured out mantle convection and claimed that this was the power source that Wegener needed to make the continents drift. The final chapter of his 1944 book, Principles of Geology, is about the mobility of the Earth’s crust. It has the first drawing of the mantle convecting and includes this line: “Currents flowing horizontally beneath the crust would inevitably carry the continents along with them.”

Alexander du ToitAlexander du Toit was a South African geologist who quickly accepted Wegener’s theory. Some consider Du Toit the greatest field geologist who ever lived. From 1903 to 1910, he travelled the whole of southern Africa on foot, ox cart, and bicycle with a mapping table slung over his shoulders.  In 1923, he was awarded a Carnegie Institute grant to travel to South America to test his thesis that rock formations that ended on the edge of Africa picked up precisely the same in Brazil. They do, convincing him that continents had once been joined and have drifted apart. Alexander du Toit wrote Our Wandering Continents in 1937 and dedicated the book to Wegener’s memory.

Reginald DalyReginald Daly, a Canadian who headed Harvard’s geology department, was a renowned field geologist who visited dozens of countries and every American state (except South Dakota) at least once. His expertise was basalt (“no rock type is more important to the Earth”) and he recognized ocean crust was heavy basalt while continents were mostly lighter granite. Quite early, Daly agreed with continental drift and supported the idea with data he personally gathered around the world. He mischievously put the words E pur si muove! (“And yet, it moves!”) on the cover of his 1926 book, Our Mobile Earth.

I’ll write more, in a few weeks, about Holmes, du Toit, and Daly. They each deserve to have their stories told. They kept the idea of mobile continents alive when almost no one believed them.  Besides Holmes, du Toit, and Daly, there were only a few other geologists during the 1930s and 40s who supported crustal mobility theories. Overwhelmingly, established geologists were convinced that the Earth’s continents were immobile.  It would take another thirty years before geologists accepted continental drift – modified as plate tectonics. Only then would the names of Alfred Wegener and the others inspire courage of convictions, rather than serve as a stark warning against breaking with scholarly tradition and dogma.

Science, they say, progresses one funeral at a time. This is especially true about the gradual acceptance of plate tectonics. But there is an unspoken (and unknowable) corollary. Science is sometimes stalled by a single death. We will never know how continental drift would have evolved had Wegener not died in Greenland. Had he lived to 1967, the year that nearly all geologists accepted plate tectonics, he would have been 87 years old. He could have lived to see the transition and perhaps even have sped its arrival. We will never know.

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100 Years of Drift: Part 4

Today, we continue with Alfred Wegener and his continental drift theory. Today’s piece will not be pretty.

At times, suppression of Wegener’s idea was ugly. There are a lot of reasons for the vilification. He was an outsider, a meteorologist who tried to revolutionize geophysics. His scientific technique was not really science, but seemed to harken back to the age of Aristotle, a time when logical conclusions were drawn from observations without much experimentation.  Recent historians have said that Wegener represented a regressive sort of science that was not as open and egalitarian as multiple-hypotheses American science was rumoured to be. Wegener was a World War I veteran who fought on the ‘wrong’ side of the bitterly divisive war, leading to astringent assaults and thinly veiled insults. His uncompromising persistence was interpreted as arrogance.

In today’s entry, we’ll review all of this and see why it would take another 50 years before continental drift morphed into plate tectonics and was finally accepted.

As we saw yesterday, Alfred Wegener build a strong circumstantial story that the continents move. It was based largely on paleoclimate and fossil evidence. However, there were problems with both his story and his presentation.

heavy-loadWegener had a strong-willed personality, was selective in his choice of examples, had no formal background in geology, and showed little apparent appreciation for the work and traditions of established geologists. Meanwhile, earth scientists pointed out the most serious flaw in Wegener’s grand idea – continents couldn’t be moved by any force weaker than God.

He suggested that continental drift was due to tidal action from solar and lunar gravitational forces, but physicists quickly proved those forces were too weak. Wegener had a theory that explained how fossils came to be distributed, but he had no way of explaining how continents themselves came to be distributed. We know now, of course, that convection currents spread oceanic rifts and create subduction zones that move the continents and create and devour crust. This idea had never occurred to Wegener nor to his contemporaries.

Scientists who glanced at Wegener’s thesis felt he was arguing that the continents sail around the oceans. A colleague, the respected geologist Franz Kossmat was particularly unconvinced. He had published over twenty geology and mineralogy books and lectured for thirty years in Graz and Leipzig. He is remembered as the first to dismiss Wegener’s continental drift in writing, insisting oceanic crust is too firm for continents to simply plow through.

In 1925, French geologist Pierre Termier said continental mobility was “a beautiful dream, the dream of a great poet. One tries to embrace it, and finds that he has in his arms a little vapour and smoke.”

In Britain, a year after the first English translation of Wegener’s Origin of Continents and Oceans, Philip Lake said this about Wegener at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society: “He is not seeking the truth; he is advocating a cause, and is blind to every fact and argument that tells against it. It is easy to fit the pieces of a puzzle together if you distort their shape, but when you have done so, your success is no proof that you have placed them in their original positions. It is not even a proof that the pieces belong to the same puzzle or that all the pieces are present.”

British geophysicist Sir Harold Jeffreys was especially unyielding, certain that the crust’s rigidity made continental drift impossible. His influence was enormous. His disciples denounced Wegener’s hypothesis for decades and lugged Sir Jeffreys’ animosity into fifty years of future debates against plate tectonics. Jeffereys himself lived to 1989, dying at age 98, long after plate tectonics was mainstream – but still opposed the idea.

But most European geologists were reserved in their criticism. It was in America that Wegener was most severely berated.

“Utter damned rot,” said William Scott, geology professor at Princeton (and President of the American Philosophical Society) in 1923, describing the theory of continental drift. Edward Berry, an American palaeobotanist, called Wegener’s theory “a selective search through the literature for corroborative evidence, ignoring most of the facts that are opposed to the idea, and ending in a state of auto-intoxication.” Bailey Willis, a renowned earthquake seismologist and geologist for the US Geological Survey, reportedly said “further discussion of it merely encumbers the literature and befogs the minds of fellow students. [It is] as antiquated as pre-Curie physics. It is a fairy tale.” Willis also claimed Wegener was more “an advocate rather than an impartial investigator.”

Although the American geologists never took their fight to the streets, there opposition to continental drift was spirited.

American geologists never actually took their fight to the streets, but opposition to continental drift was spirited.

America was the hotbed of anti-drift hostility. Ralph Chaney, an American expert on plant fossils and ancient climates, wrote “It is amusing to note that in taking care of their Tertiary forests, certain Europeans [Wegener] have condemned our forests to freezing.” Chaney dismissed Wegener’s palaeoclimatology as amateurish, apparently unaware that Wegener, with his father-in-law Wladimir Köppen, wrote the world’s primary textbook on the subject. Others, such as Chester Longwell of Yale, rejected the concept of mobile continents in the 1920s and stayed opposed into the 1960s, even as the evidence became overwhelming. In 1968, Longwell sniffed, “Although partisans favoring drift may have been right, they based most of their case on the wrong reasons and were unable to visualize a mechanism.” His statement rings of revisionist history with a touch of sour grapes.

Many in the States were opposed to the climate scientist’s theory, but the most powerful opponent to Wegener’s idea was Rollin T. Chamberlin, a geologist at the University of Chicago. He was also editor of Science and a founder of a philosophical society. Chamberlin wrote about drift, “Can geology still be considered a science if it is possible for such a theory as this to run wild?” Later, in 1928, Chamberlin quoted an unnamed colleague, “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.”

1928 aapg coverTo deride the idea, the Americans branded the theory as continental drift, though Wegener referred to his idea as Die Verschiebung der Kontinente, literally, The Displacement of the Continents. By 1928, the Americans had renamed the displacement process as continental drift, conveying a more whimsical sense. They used the phrase as the title of a collection of papers presented at a symposium sponsored by an oil explorers’ organization. As continental drift, the derision was clear. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) symposium seems to have been organized primarily to discredit Wegener and the few other proponents of his theory of displaced continents. The AAPG published the collected papers in a volume which has become a permanent record of the many New World scientists who rejected displacement and even engaged in personal attacks against Wegener.

One of the most aggressive anti-drift scientists at the AAPG gathering was Charles Schuchert. His presentation included a clay model of the continents. He slid it around in front of his audience, showing that the continents could never fit together into a supercontinent. The illustrations, British geophysicist Edward Bullard said much later, “were so bad that it is difficult to trace the reason for this extraordinary and quite false result.” Schuchert said an unnamed friend thought the fit of Africa and South America was “made by Satan” to confuse geologists.  Schuchert also had a troubling habit of referring to continental drift as “that German theory.”

Twenty years after the AAPG conference in New York, continental drift was still generally rejected without discussion, said film producer David Attenborough. He attended a British university in the late-1940s. In a 2012 interview, Attenborough recalled asking one of his lecturers why continental drift wasn’t being discussed. He says, “I was told, sneeringly, that if I could prove there was a force that could move continents, then he might think about it. The idea was moonshine, I was informed.”  Thirty years later, Attenborough presented some of that moonshine in his 1979 series, Life on Earth, demonstrating the evolution of life and planet.

Historian Naomi Oreskes suggests that a lot of the American animosity to Wegener and his drift theory stems from cultural differences in the way science was pursued. She points out that a prevailing scientific philosophy based on multiple working hypotheses “reflected American ideals expressed since the 18th century linking good science to good government. Good science was anti-authoritarian, like democracy; good science was pluralistic, like a free society. . . And if good science was a model for a free society, then bad science implicitly threatened it.”

And there was the personal aspect. Geophysicist Bullard observed, “It is interesting to consider why Wegener’s arguments did not carry conviction, since it is now clear that many of them are, in principle, sound. The reasons were, in part, associated with the nature of Wegener’s presentation. He argues too hard and was often accused of advocating a cause rather than seeking truth.”

Dismissing continental drift theory as simplistic, Chester Longwell suggested that for advocates of the idea, “a definite choice of creed brings some peace of soul that is denied to the scientific skeptic.”  It was not the last time Wegener’s theory would be described as a pseudo-scientific cult. But there may have been more to the disdain for Wegener’s theory. Rarely mentioned, but sometimes alluded to, is the fact that Wegener had been a German soldier. Americans such as his fierce critic Longwell had once had Wegener in their cross-hairs. Captain Longwell was a graduate student at Yale when the Great War broke out. He spent part of his two-year army service overseas where “his composure under unusual circumstances made all officers of the regiment admire and respect him.” The ugliness of the Great War cannot be overstated.

Wegener, his wife and daughter, 1916

Wegener, his wife and daughter, 1916

During their advance into Belgium, Wegener was shot through the arm. After two weeks in hospital, he was sent back to the line and hit again – this time a bullet lodged in his neck. Finally, the directors of the German Army sent their great scientist off to work in the meteorological service.  After the war, both sides sought cooperation in the sciences, but it did not help Wegener that his methodology displayed “cultural differences.” His theory languished on the edge of acceptability for years. Geologists saw no evidence that Greenland was trudging away from Europe at a rate of two or three metres per year, as Wegener had suggested. They argued continents are not strong enough to plow through ocean crust yet weak enough to buckle into mountains. And there was the lack of a strong force able move continents.

The idea of mobile continents passed from a peculiar notion to a real scientific theory when Alfred Wegener suggested that scientists might be able to measure the pace of continental motion. This was a testable question for his hypothesis. Measurement would authenticate his theory, he said. Using old, but unreliable maps, Wegener estimated North America and Europe are separating at a rate of 250 centimetres each year. Wegener was wrong, the actual velocity is a hundred times slower. Wegener thought astronomical measurements would eventually become precise enough to measure the growing gap between Ireland and Newfoundland. He optimistically expected new techniques “will soon remove the last doubts about the reality of this movement.” But when newer data arrived a few years later, it neither confirmed nor denied continental drift.

Wegener would not live long enough to see his theory proved. Measurements made in the 1980s finally confirmed his wild notion. Laser beams bounced between widely-separated pylons, charting continental drift. Recently, Earth-orbiting satellites have since marked the movement with a  precision unimaginable in 1912.

After Wegener’s death, a trio of scientists kept his drift theory simmering on the back burners of the science kitchen: Alexander du Toit, Arthur Holmes, and Reginald Daly. In future essays, I’ll give each of these scientists a voice. Tomorrow, we will look at Alfred Wegener’s immediate legacy and his last days, spent trying to help colleagues during a Greenland blizzard.

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100 Years of Drift: Part 3

wegener pipe outdoorsIn today’s blog post, we continue our story of the development of the theory of continental drift – an idea which just celebrated its 100th birthday. Before Alfred Wegener’s 1915 book on contintents in motion, a few others had the idea, yet no one had developed it as thoroughly. In Part 1 of this series, we covered a bit of Alfred Wegener’s early life and some of his initial work. Yesterday, we showed how fossils and palaeoclimate figured into his continental drift theory. Today, we continue with Wegener by looking at his idea in a little detail.

On Saturday, January 6, 1912, Wegener presented a lecture that unveiled his hypothesis of a supercontinent and the idea that it fractured into our modern continents. He gave his talk to the German Geological Society at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt.  Probably no one in attendance believed his notion – they knew that the continents were fixed rigidly in place. Wegener finished to disinterested and polite applause. It was the sort of speculative lecture suited for the Saturday afternoon it was given. Graduate students listened, few questions were asked, and the meteorologist Alfred Wegener was expected to return to launching his weather balloons in Greenland.

Wegener_KontinenteBut three years later, in 1915, Wegener expounded upon his theory. He envisaged a grand unified continent, or Urkontinent, which once had held all of Earth’s life. Wegener had spent the previous three years quizzing acquaintances and gleaning geology journals for scraps of evidence – anything that would support his theory. It was backwards science – selectively enlisting information to prove a point. Later, he would be taken to task for this approach. However, by the time he published Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans), he had collected hundreds of examples of corroborating evidence related to continental movement, including:

1) The outlines of most continents fit together like a jigsaw puzzle;
2) There are geological similarities including mountain belts, river trends, ore deposits, and rock types along the Europe-North America and Africa-South America coasts;
3) Fossils of land vertebrates and plants extend across those same continents, though now separated by oceans; and,
4) Tropical plants once thrived in Antarctica while glaciers scratched striations, or grooves, into rocks in North Africa – occurrences best explained by continents moving across climate zones.

Kontinente_und_Ozeane mapThus, he presented Pangaea, his conglomeration of all the continents clustered into an ancient supercontinent. On Pangaea,  freely roaming lifeforms had scattered their fossils and mountain ranges and ore deposits were continuous. According to Wegener, some unknown force caused Pangaea to break up, separating fossils and ores alike. The old supercontinent’s pieces slid about on the Earth, arriving at the positions we are familiar with on today’s maps.

Although the circumstantial evidence was significant, without a massive power source to displace the continents, it was difficult for established scientists to seriously consider his idea. At the Frankfurt meeting, Wegener had said, “the forces that displace continents are the same as those that produce great fold-mountain ranges. Continental displacement, faults, and compressions, earthquakes, volcanoes, transgression cycles, and polar wandering are undoubtedly connected on a grand scale.”  They undoubtedly are, though Wegener had not discovered the mysterious forces.

Wegener described the continents splitting, gliding, wandering, and colliding but he could not propose any engine strong enough to propel them.  Nor could he explain why there were apparently no trails gouged into the seafloor behind the continents, scratched into the substrate as they plowed along. The idea that rigid, heavy continents could wander the Earth’s surface was preposterous to reasonable geologists. But Wegener continued sifting through the evidence that supported mobility. Over the next few years he followed his Frankfurt lecture with three papers and his 1915 book, which we have just noted. His Origins book – written in a popular and accessible style – was updated several times before Wegener’s early death, 15 years later.  In those revisions, he answered detractors and built his defense from his observations and his immense library of correspondence with geologists.

But Wegener the meteorologist was isolated and his idea received as much goodwill as most pseudo-science is given today (the difference, of course, drift would be modified into plate tectonics and eventually proven correct). Tomorrow, we conclude this saga and hear how one American geologist responded to Wegener: “Utter damn rot!” That sentiment, from a Princeton geology professor, was not a lonely debunking of Alfred Wegener. It was the nearly unanimous voice of reason that would prevail in earth sciences for another 50 years.

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100 Years of Drift: Part 2

It’s been 100 years since Alfred Wegener proposed his idea of continental drift. Today’s blog continues the story we began yesterday – the tale of Wegener’s life and the development of his grand idea of mobile continents. This time, we’ll look at the significance of fossils and climate and how these contributed to the drift theory. 

By 1900, most geologists and biologists accepted Darwin’s description of species evolution. Darwin noted that the offspring of various creatures, isolated from each other and exposed to different environments, evolve into quite different beings with the passage of time. For example, bison arose on the American plains while the wildebeest fills a similar ecological niche in Africa. Both form huge herds, mostly survive by grazing (eating grass and seeds), but also by a little browsing (munching on the odd shrub). Both animals have manes, wild beards, and both look like trouble.

2 beasts

But you would instantly distinguish a bison from a wildebeest. Significant changes have taken place in the millions of years since the two animals  shared a common ancestor. In addition, with very little practice, you would quickly discern the fossilized bones of each.  No African creatures evolved to exactly resemble the American bison and no wildebeest herd ever roamed the Kansas grasslands. Similar, but distinct – though they have common ancestors.

So it was hard to explain, a century ago, how fossils of absolutely identical creatures, such Lystrosaurus, Mesosaurus, Cynognathus, and a myriad of lesser fossilized animals (such as snails and lizards) could be found on separate continents. Geologists also observed fossils of the  tropical fern Glossopteris in Antarctica’s coal beds as well as parts of India, Africa, and South America. None of these lifeforms could swim an ocean. Without admitting a supercontinent’s former existence, rupture and subsequent drifting, it was difficult to explain how those plants and animals could have populated several remote continents simultaneously – unless the former continents were once merged in a unified land upon which they traipsed. Merged, like this:

continental drift creatures
Most geologists believed that some sort of land bridges, now sunken below the waves, had helped creatures (including plants and snails) roam freely between the continents. There are modern land bridge examples – Central America links the American continents, allowing migrations; Alaska and Russia have periodically shared a land bridge that animals such as horses, camels, and humans have crossed. This, with a stretch of imagination, could solve the problem of the distribution of fossils. However, by 1900, no signs of any long-lost sunken bridge between South America and Africa had been discovered. Nor between Newfoundland and Norway, nor Australia, Asia, and Antarctica, nor any of the other dozen places they were needed to account for fossil similarities. An alternative solution was to assume that the problematic fossils had arisen upon a single supercontinent which split apart, pieces drifting off to become autonomous landmasses, thus disconnecting those ancient plant and animal fossils in the process. But to most geologists at the time, drifting continents seemed highly improbable.

The person who best explained how fossils might have become scattered without the help of land bridges was not trained as a palaeontologist, botanist, nor even as a geologist. He was, instead, a polar explorer, a university professor, and a meteorologist. Although Alfred Wegener is at the heart of the theory that would eventually explain how fish fossils appeared on mountain slopes, he was not an Earth scientist.

Wegener was more comfortable on icy plains than mountain ridges. But as an outsider, he offered a fresh perspective on the Earth’s changing landscape. Wegener and other climatologists wondered aloud about tropical fossils (and coal deposits) discovered north of the Arctic Circle and ancient signs in the Sahara (rock scratches called striations, plus distinctive rock rubble) that could only be made by glaciers.

Before the Permian, 300 million years ago, there had been a hot swampy period with leafy foliage dominating the landscape and creating the billions of cubic metres of carbonaceous rocks – coal – that would eventually add smoke and energy to our industrial age. Today, those coal layers stretch around the world, even to Canada’s most northerly island, Ellesmere, just a few hundred kilometres from the North Pole. While others assumed the entire Earth was once tropical, Wegener’s explanation for coal in the arctic was continental movement. Wegener showed that all the land once clumped together into one large continent centred on the steamy equator where the coal developed. Then the landmass slid to extreme southern latitudes where it was covered by glaciers, like this:

Pangaea's proposed visit to the south pole. Lines indicate glacial striations.

Pangaea’s proposed visit to the south pole. Arrows indicate glacial striations.

Finally, Wegener broke his supercontinent into drifting pieces which distributed coal seams, fossilized coral reefs, glacial striations, and salt beds to places that are impossible in today’s climate. Continent mobility, as improbable as it seemed to geologists a hundred years ago, best explained such strange climate relics.

WegenerFor meteorologist Wegener, the world-wide distribution of ancient glacial remains such as till, drummonds, eskers, and especially striations, were compelling evidence that the continents had moved. Something very odd had happened to the Earth. The planet’s surface had been hot, then experienced a deep freeze at the start of  the Permian. Wegener noted glacial striations are found in North and South America, India, Asia, Europe, and even the Sahara. Such grooves are uniquely etched by the weight of glaciers as they drag stones across underlying rocks, leaving telltale scratches, or striation signatures. Nothing else causes them. This was a major problem for geologists. How could so many locales – including places on the equator – have been massively iced?

Unencumbered by colleagues or mentors attached to established geological precepts, Wegener weighed the evidence. His detachment enhanced his daring innovation, but it also made him a target for rejection, a rebel dismissed as an uninformed outsider producing misguided speculations. Ultimately, his contribution to geology led to the best model for explaining the Earth’s dramatic scenery. With Wegener everything – earthquakes, volcanoes, distribution of rocks, glacial debris, and fossils – falls neatly into place. He advanced the crucial theory that answered the most enigmatic puzzles about the Earth. But his big idea was rejected for fifty years. His contributions were only appreciated decades after his death in a blizzard on his final Greenland expedition.

We will continue our story about Alfred Wegener tomorrow when we examine his papers, his big idea – which he called continental displacement, but Americans translated more whimsically as continental drift, and his book, Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans). We’ll also begin to look at the extreme animosity that greeted his work.

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100 Years of Drift: Part 1

Alfred Wegener, in Greenland, 1930

Alfred Wegener, in Greenland, 1930  (photo by Fritz Loewe)

Fifty years ago, we finally figured out why the Earth has mountains. But one hundred years ago, Alfred Wegener had already offered an explanation – it took those extra 50 years for his grand idea to catch on. The continents, Wegener said, wander about. They bump into each other. Accidents cause mountains.

Yea, it’s been a hundred years since Wegener first wrote about continental displacement. A few other people had similar notions earlier. In the 1600s, Francis Bacon speculated that the southern hemisphere’s continents were arranged “like an opening blossom.” Some say Bacon was wondering if they had drifted from an original supercontinent, though Bacon never really said that.

In the 1800s, a few notable geologists (particularly Antonio Snider-Pelligrini, in France, and Richard Owen, in the USA) claimed that the continents were mobile. But their cases weren’t as compelling as Alfred Wegener’s, whose idea was compelling, but also derided, ridiculed, rejected, denounced, smeared, and otherwise not taken too seriously by anyone anywhere. Over the next couple of blog posts, we’ll give Wegener’s theory a bit of an airing.

Snider-Pelligrini's 1858 map of continental drift

Snider-Pelligrini’s 1858 map of continental drift

Alfred Wegener, born November 1, 1880, in Berlin, was the youngest of five children in a middle-class family. His mother, Anna Schwarz, and his father, Richard Wegener, lived in Berlin Mitte, the city’s main centre and cultural and intellectual hub.  The elder Wegener taught classical languages and lectured as a theological philosopher. (Some popular histories make much of Wegener’s father, describing him as “an evangelical preacher.” In 1880s Germany, non-Catholic Christians were usually called ‘evangelical‘. The senior Wegener wasn’t a preacher, he taught theology.)

Humboldt University

Humboldt University in Berlin

Young Wegener studied at nearby Köllnische Gymnasium, where he ranked first in his school in everything, particularly excelling in physics. Afterwards, he studied in Berlin, then Heidelberg, and Innsbruck. He returned to Berlin’s prestigious Humboldt University where philosopher Walter Benjamin and physicist Max Planck, as well as Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels had all been either instructors or students. During graduate studies, Alfred Wegener assisted at Berlin’s Urania Astronomical Observatory.

30-year-old Alfred Wegener in 1910

30-year-old Alfred Wegener in 1910 (photo credit)

Although armed with a PhD in astronomy, Wegener acquired an interest in climatology. He took a position at the Lindenberg Observatory where his older brother was already a meteorologist. Among other duties, Kurt and Alfred Wegener pioneered weather-balloon tracking of storms. They also tested a new celestial navigation quadrant by climbing aboard experimental balloons. One of their flights, in April 1906, set a record for the longest time anyone had ever been airborne – they spent 52 uninterrupted hours floating above Europe.

Also in 1906, Wegener was invited to join a Danish expedition to Greenland. It was the first of his four field studies on the frozen island. He later regarded the expedition as a turning point in his scientific career – exploring the  arctic became his great passion. Greenland offered opportunities for discovery. By the early part of the twentieth century, much of coastal Greenland had been charted, but there were remote unknown stretches along the northeast coast which he explored. The arctic experience tested Wegener’s resolve. His mentor and team leader died during the 1906 expedition while exploring Greenland’s interior by dog sled in conditions similar to those that would later take Wegener’s own life, 20 years later.

snug as spoonsWegener’s curiosity, and some of his Greenland observations, led him to stray into the unresolved issues of geology. He devoured  journals and corresponded widely with geologists. He admits he was seduced by the potential snug fit of the African and South American coastlines. In December 1910, Wegener wrote to his lady friend, “Doesn’t the east coast of South America fit exactly against the west coast of Africa, as if they had once been joined?” (She married the young romantic.)

After returning from the first of his four Greenland expeditions, Wegener spent the next six years lecturing cosmic physics, applied astronomy,  and climatology at the University of Marburg.  He was an unusually spirited professor – his students appreciated the small, energetic teacher who presented clear, organized lectures. His course notes were so well-formed that he was able to gather them into one of the first text-books explaining meteorology. His 1911 text became the standard climatology text for several decades and it was the first to include detailed observations and weather data from the Arctic.

As a result of his climate studies, Wegener noted evidence of glacial remains in the Sahara desert and tropical fossils north of the Arctic Circle. Consequently, Wegener developed his idea that the continents are in motion.  At first, Wegener claimed, he was unconvinced of his own theory. But in the fall of 1911 he stumbled upon a paper that listed fossil similarities between Africa and South America. Wegener pursued fossil distributions and palaeoclimate evidence. He finally concluded that the continents had split apart, plowed through oceans, and drifted to their present temporary positions. He saw the Earth’s surface as dynamic and alive with motion. He even thought he saw signs of continental drift when he compared his observations in Greenland with maps produced a few generations earlier. On January 6, 1912, Wegener took the risky step of publicizing his unorthodox thoughts about mobile continents. 

Tomorrow, we shall see the personal consequences of his continental drift idea and we’ll look at some of the fossils that helped lead him to his conclusion.

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Throwing Spitballs in Geology Class

Rule #1 (credit)

Rule #1   (credit)

Chemistry Lab: Tie you hair back. Wear lab coats and safety goggles!
Physics Lab: Get assistance before lifting wave tank. Use sturdy shoes!
Biology Lab: Always wear goggles, rubber gloves, and face mask!
Geology Lab: Here’s a rock. Take turns licking it.

I went to high school in the 1970s. The sciences were Grade 10 Biology, Grade 11 Chemistry, and Grade 12 Physics. I don’t remember geology being taught at all, except in Grade 8 where rocks and volcanoes were mentioned along with a bit of astronomy and meteorology. About 40 years later, I’ve got kids in the local public school and they don’t have geology as a standard science offering, either. But that’s changing.

Howard would enjoy geology more.

Howard would enjoy geology more.

I’m in Calgary, a Canadian city of over a million. There are a lot of opportunities for kids in this community. Geology is important here and public school classes in the science are offered. Geology has a lot of advocates – Calgary has 3,000 resident geologists and 350 geophysicists.

We can see the Rockies from our living room, so plate tectonics and Devonian fossils are literally in front of us, all the time. To the east, prairie soil covers billions of barrels of oil while the nearby mountains are made of concrete-grade limestone. They also have silver, copper, and bits of jewelry scattered among crinoids and ammonites. Just south of town is the world’s largest erratic, delivered to us by a 500 kilometres along a glacial train. It’s proof of the power of ice, glaciers, erosion, and changes in geomorphology. A short drive to the east, among badlands and hoodoos, is our world-class Tyrrell dinosaur museum, home to the bones of  local Albertosaurus and Tyrannosaurus specimens. Our provincial government is concerned about carbon dioxide and global warming, so that’s also a topic geology students are studying. There are plenty of reasons to teach earth sciences here. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Calgary is also home to a major office of the Geological Survey of Canada. I’ve worked with some of its scientists. They are all keen to help people learn about geology and geophysics. One of the GSC folks is Godfrey Nowlan, who has helped design a high school geology course for Calgary schools. It’s called Geology 25, which means it is directed towards 17-year-olds in either Grade 11 or 12.

Here’s what the school board says about the new course:

Geology 25  Credits: 3
– provides learning opportunities for students to explore the geological landscape
– discover connections between geology and the world around you through illustrative
– examine the economic, environmental, and societal implications of geological
exploration and development in Alberta and beyond
Prerequisite:   successful completion of Science 10 or Science 14

The high school geology modules were designed to offer 3 hours of lecture and 1 of tutorials each week. There’s not much time for kids to get bored and throw spitballs – nor should they want to, considering the interesting material and activities.  There are also labs focused on three key studies: 1) examination of an item for its mineral content and study of the geology of mines that produced the components; 2) dissection and background of sample fossils; and, 3) study of geological/geophysical disasters and responses. Glaciation and climate change are topics of field trips.

It’s surprising that such a course isn’t offered everywhere. I’m searching for feedback from teachers and students of this or other similar programs offered in other parts of the world. If you’ve got such experiences to share, drop me a note, please.

classroom sample

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Have Geophysicists Found Suleiman the Magnificent’s Heart?

geophysicist seismic acquisition

Geophysics fun – seismic acquisition (Credit: Miksha)

What does a geophysicist do? Almost everything that involves looking beneath the soil. Geophysicists study everything from buried tombs to the boundary between the Earth’s inner and outer core. They perform a sort of fancy X-ray magic which can include seismic, electromagnetic rays, magnetism, gravity – things that let us peek beneath the Earth’s skin without actually going there.

A friend of mine is a senior geophysicist at an environmental reclamation company. She uses her geophysics skills to supervise the remediation of spills and leaks, cleaning up other people’s earthly mistakes. A university colleague – someone whom I’d hired to work at my company – went on to use high-frequency radar to monitor the walls of potash mines, a kilometre below the surface. Another has been listening in our planet’s inner core’s low-frequency ringing. Still another looked for minerals in Costa Rica until his misadventures sent him packing. Quite a wide range, but none of my buddies has used geophysics to find coins and buttons on sandy beaches. Or tombs in central Europe.

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman the Magnificent in 1530
(Portrait attributed to Renaissance artist Titian)

One tomb that had been lost to time, history, and the weathering of rocks and soil belonged to Suleiman the Magnificent (or Terrible, depending on which side of his border you were on). In the 16th century, Suleiman expanded the Ottoman Empire, strengthening control of the Levant, while capturing north Africa through Algeria, and Asia east to Persia. In 1564, he sent his navy to protect the sultanate of Sumatra, in Indonesia from Dutch interests. Suleiman conquered a huge chunk of central Europe, directing the troops himself. Twice he sieged Vienna and twice he conquered Budapest. He ruled an empire with 30 million citizens for 46 years – the longest reign of any Ottoman sultan. Under his rule, the empire reached its pinnacle in arts, science, and architecture – Suleiman rebuilt Jerusalem’s Old Wall and renovated the Kaaba in Mecca.

He was a complicated man. It’s alleged that he killed two of his sons because he didn’t think they’d be much good as heir to his throne. But he wrote endearing poetry under the pen name Lover. He ruthlessly crushed internal uprisings and rebellions, but usually treated his defeated foreign foes with mercy – when he captured Rhodes, the defeated Knights Hospitallers were given a civil send-off and provisions so they could sail to Malta (where they continued to fight him as the Knights of Malta).  Under his rule, subjects were free to practice their choice of faith, but preferential jobs were given to converts to Islam. His personal physician was a Jew exiled from Spain. Suleiman’s childhood friend, a Christian slave from northern Greece, converted and eventually became commander of all the empire’s armies. Suleiman’s wife was the daughter of a Ukrainian orthodox priest. After converting, she ruled alongside Suleiman. He was infatuated with her. Suleiman, a respectable poet, wrote of his wife Roxanna, “[You are] my wealth, my love, my moonlight. My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my one and only love.” It sounds even more convincing in Turkish.  But don’t take my word on any of this – it’s all in a soap opera, Magnificent Century, currently watched by 200 million people every week in 52 countries.

monuments to zrinski and szuleiman

Monuments to Zrinski and Suleiman near Szigetvár

Geophysics played a role in the discovery of something that looks like the final resting place of Suleiman the Magnificent’s internal organs (the rest of his body was carried back to Istanbul). He died, at age 71, in his tent in southern Hungary while laying siege to a castle known as Szigetvár. The great sultan died but his men weren’t told, lest they quit fighting. The fortress, held by 2,300 Croatians and Hungarians, was no match against 150,000 Turkish soldiers. On the last day of battle, General Nikola Zrinski, a Croatian nobleman, died leading a suicide cavalry charge with his remaining 600 troops. About a dozen survived. They were spared and sent home by the Turks who said they greatly admired their adversaries’ spunk.

Cannon balls launched at Szigetvar

Counting a few of the 10,000 cannon balls launched against Szigetvár
during the 1566 siege. (Credit: Miksha)

According to legend, upon Suleiman’s death, the king/general/poet’s heart and liver were placed in a tomb on a hill above the castle. A Turkish town grew around the death shrine of Suleiman the Magnificent. Turbék had a dervish monastery, shops, and an inn for travelers who came to pay respects at the tomb over the next 150 years. But then the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turkish village on Hungarian soil was destroyed. Within a few generations, no sign of the former shrine or town remained. Instead, in 1919 a plaque was stuck on Saint Mary’s church, a kilometre away. The marker is still there, declaring Suleiman’s tomb is under the church, but there is no evidence that the church was actually built atop the sultan’s shrine.

Archaeologists, armed with geophysicists as tools, think they have found the neglected site. It’s in a vineyard on a knoll above the church. It is hidden under soil now, 450 years after Suleiman’s death. The newly discovered location seems to include a mausoleum, several small buildings, and possibly a dervish monastery. All of that may seem hard to miss, but Suleiman died in 1566 and everything was abandoned and wrecked when the Ottomans left the area in the 1680s. Remote sensing (satellite images) and geophysics have helped place the forgotten tomb.

Lead geographer Norbert Pap  from the University of Pecs began looking for the tomb by searching in the vineyard rather than at the church grounds after studying ancient maps and letters that indicated the approximate location of the long vanished village of Turbék. Aerial photographs helped, but the sleuthing is still remarkable. Would you have spotted the right place to dig from this photograph if I hadn’t placed the huge red circle on it?

Dig site searching for Suleiman's shrine.

Archaeological dig site in the search for Suleiman’s shrine.

dig in vineyard and orchardNext came an archaeological trench which uncovered. . . something. It looks very promising. Shards of pottery with Arabic writing, some tiles, and the foundation of a building were found among the excavated grape vine roots. But looking at the soil, nothing resembles a lost town. It was time to call in the geophysicists.

Three types of geophysics were used to try to delineate the bounds of the buried ruins – magnetic, electrical, and radar. In October 2014, ground conductivity (EM, or electromagnetic) and vertical magnetic mapping techniques were attempted,  but the area had too much wire and reinforcing mesh (unrelated to the shrine) nearby to get consistent readings. Ferric material is obviously trouble for any methods using electrical conduction or magnetism. The EM system should have found the boundaries of disturbed subsoil by measurements of electric flow, but the interference from ground contamination wouldn’t allow clear results.

Typical GPR radargram. Depth, shown to the left, in metres.

Typical GPR radargram.
Depth, shown to the left, in metres.

The geophysicists switched to ground-probing radar (GPR).  GPR blasts the soil with extremely high frequency signals which echo back to receivers. It’s similar to seismic exploration but GPR resolution is much finer, though it works only on shallow targets.

The GPR tests resulted in locating a large building with numerous small rooms, long buried below the vineyard. Archaeologists interpreted this as the dervish monastery. But the GPR’s prize discovery, at a depth of 100 to 125 cm (3 or 4 feet) below ground level, was a square building precisely aligned towards Mecca. They think it’s Suleiman’s shrine.

You may find this paper, written by Norbert Pap (et.al.) of the University of Pecs, an interesting read: Finding the Tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent in Szigetvár, Hungary: historical, geophysical, and archeological investigations.

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