Wegener’s Evidence for Continental Drift

Wegener’s Evidence for Continental Drift 

Wegener suggested that a vast supercontinent, Pangaea, existed until near the end of the Mesozoic Era (the interval of geologic time that lasted from 251 to 65 million years ago). He suggested that Pangaea then broke apart, and the landmasses moved away from each other to form the continents we see today. Let’s look at some of Wegener’s arguments and see what led him to formulate this hypothesis of continental drift.

The Fit of the Continents 

Almost as soon as maps of the Atlantic coastlines became available in the 1500s, scholars noticed the fit of the continents. The northwestern coast of Africa could tuck in against the eastern coast of North America, and the bulge of eastern South America could nestle cozily into the indentation of southwestern Africa. Australia, Antarctica, and India could all connect to the southeast of Africa, while Greenland, Europe, and Asia could pack against the northeastern margin of North America. In fact, all the continents could be joined, with remarkably few overlaps or gaps, to create Pangaea. Wegener concluded that the fit was too good to be coincidence and thus that the continents once did fit together.

Locations of Past Glaciations 

Glaciers are rivers or sheets of ice that flow across the land surface. As a glacier flows, it carries sediment grains of all sizes (clay, silt, sand, pebbles, and boulders). Grains protruding from the base of the moving ice carve scratches, called striations, into the substrate. When the ice melts, it leaves the sediment in a deposit called till, that buries striations. Thus, the occurrence of till and striations at a location serve as evidence that the region was covered by a glacier in the past (see chapter opening photo). By studying the age of glacial till deposits, geologists have determined that large areas of the land were covered by glaciers during time intervals of Earth history called ice ages. One of these ice ages occurred from about 326 to 267 Ma, near the end of the Paleozoic Era. 

Wegner's evidence for continental drift came from analysing the geologic record.
Wegener was an Arctic climate scientist by training, so it’s no surprise that he had a strong interest in glaciers. He knew that glaciers form mostly at high latitudes today. So he suspected that if he plotted a map of the locations of late Paleozoic glacial till and striations, he might gain insight into the locations of continents during the Paleozoic. When he plotted these locations, he found that glaciers of this time interval occurred in southern South America, southern Africa, southern India, Antarctica, and southern Australia. These places are now widely separated and, with the exception of Antarctica, do not currently lie in cold polar regions (figure above a). To Wegener’s amazement, all late Paleozoic glaciated areas lie adjacent to each other on his map of Pangaea. Furthermore, when he plotted the orientation of glacial striations, they all pointed roughly outward from a location in southeastern Africa. In other words, Wegener determined that the distribution of glaciations at the end of the Paleozoic Era could easily be explained if the continents had been united in Pangaea, with the southern part of Pangaea lying beneath the center of a huge ice cap. This distribution of glaciation could not be explained if the continents had always been in their present positions.

The Distribution of Climatic Belts 

If the southern part of Pangaea had straddled the South Pole at the end of the Paleozoic Era, then during this same time interval, southern North America, southern Europe, and northwestern Africa would have straddled the equator and would have had tropical or subtropical climates. Wegener searched for evidence that this was so by studying sedimentary rocks that were formed at this time, for the material making up these rocks can reveal clues to the past climate. For example, in the swamps and jungles of tropical regions, thick deposits of plant material accumulate, and when deeply buried, this material transforms into coal. And in the clear, shallow seas of tropical regions, large reefs develop. Finally, subtropical regions, on either side of the tropical belt, contain deserts, an environment in which sand dunes form and salt from evaporating seawater or salt lakes accumulates. Wegener speculated that the distribution of late Paleozoic coal, reef, sand-dune, and salt deposits could define climate belts on Pangaea. 
Sure enough, in the belt of Pangaea that Wegener expected to be equatorial, late Paleozoic sedimentary rock layers include abundant coal and the relicts of reefs. And in the portions of Pangaea that Wegener predicted would be subtropical, late Paleozoic sedimentary rock layers include relicts of desert dunes and deposits of salt (figure above b). On a present-day map of our planet, exposures of these ancient rock layers scatter around the globe at a variety of latitudes. On Wegener’s Pangaea, the exposures align in continuous bands that occupy appropriate latitudes.

The Distribution of Fossils 

Today, different continents provide homes for different species. Kangaroos, for example, live only in Australia. Similarly, many kinds of plants grow only on one continent and not on others. Why? Because land-dwelling species of animals and plants cannot swim across vast oceans, and thus evolved independently on different continents. During a period of Earth history when all continents were in  contact, however, land animals and plants could have migrated among many continents. 
With this concept in mind, Wegener plotted fossil occurrences of land-dwelling species that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic Eras (between about 300 and 210 million years ago) and found that these species had indeed existed on several continents (figure above c). Wegener argued that the distribution of fossil species required the continents to have been adjacent to one another in the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic Eras.

Matching Geologic Units 

 Further evidence of drift: rocks on different sides of the ocean match.
An art historian can recognize a Picasso painting, an architect knows what makes a building look “Victorian,” and a geoscientist can identify a distinctive assemblage of rocks. Wegener found that the same distinctive Precambrian rock assemblages occurred on the eastern coast of South America and the western coast of Africa, regions now separated by an ocean  (figure above a). If the continents had been joined to create Pangaea in the past, then these matching rock groups would have been adjacent to each other, and thus could have composed continuous blocks or belts. Wegener also noted that features of the Appalachian Mountains of the United States and Canada closely resemble mountain belts in southern Greenland, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and northwestern Africa (figure above b, c), regions that would have lain adjacent to each other in Pangaea. Wegener thus demonstrated that not only did the coastlines of continents match, so too did the rocks adjacent to the coastlines.

Criticism of Wegener’s Ideas 

Wegener’s model of a supercontinent that later broke apart explained the distribution of ancient glaciers, coal, sand dunes, rock assemblages, and fossils. Clearly, he had compiled a strong circumstantial case for continental drift. But as noted earlier, he could not adequately explain how or why continents drifted. He left on his final expedition to Greenland having failed to convince his peers, and he died without knowing that his ideas, after lying dormant for decades, would be reborn as the basis of the broader theory of plate tectonics. 
In effect, Wegener was ahead of his time. It would take three more decades of research before geologists obtained sufficient data to test his hypotheses properly. Collecting this data required instruments and techniques that did not exist in Wegener’s day. Of the many geologic discoveries that ultimately opened the door to plate tectonics, perhaps the most important came from the discovery of a phenomenon called paleomagnetism, so we discuss it next.
Credit: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)