Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) was a German scientist who specialized in meteorology and climatology. He had a knack for questioning accepted ideas, and this started in 1910 when he disagreed with isostasy (vertical land movement due to the weight being removed or added) as the explanation for the Bering Land Bridge. After literary reviews, he published a hypothesis stating the continents had moved in the past. While he did not have the precise mechanism worked out, he had a long list of evidence that backed up his hypothesis of continental drift.
EARLY EVIDENCE FOR CONTINENTAL DRIFT
The first piece of evidence is that the shape of the coastlines of some continents fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Since the first world map, people have noticed the similarities in the coastlines of South America and Africa, and the continents being ripped apart had even been mentioned as an explanation. Antonio Snider-Pellegrini even did preliminary work on continental separation and matching fossils in 1858.
What Wegener did differently than others was synthesized a significant amount of data in one place, as well as use the shape of the continental shelf, the actual edge of the continent, instead of the current coastline, which fit even better than previous efforts. Wegener also compiled and added to evidence of similar rocks, fossils, and glacial formations across the oceans.
For example, the primitive aquatic reptile Mesosaurus was found on the separate coastlines of the continents of Africa and South America, and the reptile Lystrosaurus was found on Africa, India, and Antarctica. These were land-dwelling creatures that could not have swam across an entire ocean; thus this was explained away by opponents of continental drift by land bridges. The land bridges, which, in the hypothesis of proponents, had eroded away, allowed animals and plants to move between the continents. However, some of the presumed land bridges would have had to have stretched across broad, deep oceans.
Mountain ranges with the same rock types, structures, and ages are now on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The Appalachians of the eastern United States and Canada, for example, are just like mountain ranges in eastern Greenland, Ireland, Great Britain, and Norway. Wegener concluded that they formed a single mountain range that was separated as the continents drifted.
Another significant piece of evidence was climate anomalies. Late Paleozoic glacial evidence was found in widespread, warm areas like southern Africa, India, Australia, and the Arabian subcontinent. Wegener himself had found evidence of tropical plant fossils in areas north of the Arctic Circle. According to Wegener, the simpler explanation that fit all the climate, rock, and fossil observations, mainly as more data were collected, involved moving continents.
Grooves and rock deposits left by ancient glaciers are found today on different continents very close to the equator. This would indicate that the glaciers either formed in the middle of the ocean and/or covered most of the Earth. Today glaciers only form on land and nearer the poles. Wegener thought that the glaciers were centered over the southern land mass close to the South Pole and the continents moved to their present positions later on.
PROPOSED MECHANISM FOR CONTINENTAL DRIFT
Wegener’s work was considered a fringe theory for his entire life. One of the most significant apparent flaws and easiest dismissals of Wegener’s hypothesis was a mechanism for movement of the continents. The continents did not appear to move, and extraordinary evidence would need to be provided to change the minds of the establishment, including a mechanism for movement. Other pro-continental drift followers had used expansion, contraction, or even the origin of the Moon as ideas to how the continents moved. Wegener used centrifugal forces and precession to explain the movement, but that was proven wrong. He had some speculation about seafloor spreading, with hints of convection within the earth, but these were unsubstantiated. As it turns out, convection within the mantle has been revealed as a significant force in driving plate movements, according to current knowledge.