Plate tectonics

Continental-drift opus turns 100

One hundred years ago this year, the legendary German explorer, geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener published his milestone book The Origin of Continents and Oceans (see Nature 127, 861; 1931). His theory of continental drift was initially viewed as heresy by the scientific community, yet his book was later translated into many languages and updated regularly until 1929.

For his opus, Wegener assembled an array of geological, palaeontological and geophysical data. They are best explained, he argued, by hypothesizing that major landmasses eventually broke apart and went their separate ways. After his death, his ideas were largely forgotten until the 1960s, when geophysicists demonstrated the phenomenon of sea-floor spreading (see N. Oreskes Nature 501, 27–29; 2013). Plate tectonics has since gained acceptance as a synthetic theory with huge explanatory power.

Wegener died in 1930 while exploring in Greenland. Buried in the ice, his body has sailed westwards at a rate of about 2 centimetres per year on the back of the North American plate. He would have been glad to know that it will have travelled some 20 kilometres in a million years' time — in accordance with his visionary theory.

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Correspondence to Richard L. Cifelli.

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Romano, M., Cifelli, R. Continental-drift opus turns 100. Nature 526, 43 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/526043e

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