Childhood & Early Life
Alfred Wegner was born, in an affluent German family, in the capital city of Berlin, on November 1, 1880. He was the fifth child of churchman Richard and house-maker Anna Wegener. Richard taught classical languages in one of the most prestigious educational institute, ‘Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster’, of Germany.
After receiving traditional education from the grammar school ‘Köllnisches Gymnasium’, in 1899 he pursued higher education from University of Berlin, Germany and then later in Austria, concentrating on physics, meteorology and astronomy.
The bright student then focussed on astronomy and interned at the renowned astronomical laboratory of Urania during 1902-03. He prepared his thesis for doctoral degree under the tutelage of astronomer Julius Bauschinger.
In 1905, he was awarded a Ph.D. by the ‘Friedrich Wilhelms University’ but Alfred’s interest in astronomy waned and he decided to pursue a career in the field of geophysics and meteorology.
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Wegner then worked together with his elder brother Kurt Wegner at a meteorological station and the two conducted studies on air movement. Using weather balloons the Wegner brothers created history in April 1906 when they made the longest hot air balloon flight of 52.5 hours.
This polar researcher embarked on his first expedition to the Arctic in 1906. The Danish meteorological expedition was spearheaded by Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Alfred studied the climate in the polar region using kites and weather balloons.
Though the expedition was a great learning experience for him but it also exposed him to the dangers of his profession when the team lost Ludvig and two other colleagues during the trip.
Upon his return from the Greenland expedition in 1908, Alfred took up a teaching position in the ‘University of Marburg’. At the institute, he utilised his experience of the Arctic exploration to explain difficult and complex concepts in applied astronomy and cosmic physics to the students in a simple manner. He was quite popular among the students for his succinct and concise lectures.
This talented paleoclimatologists published the first ever textbook on meteorology ‘Thermodynamik der Atmosphäre’ (Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere), in 1910. He included many of his findings of the Greenland exploration in the book.
From 1910-1912, Wegner researched on the theory of ‘Continental Drift’, which suggested that the existing continents were probably the constituent of a single super continent. The land masses are constantly floating on a fluid mantle towards and away from one another around the planet; which has resulted in their present day positions on the earth.
Alfred first has an inkling of the idea when he noticed the boundaries of South American and African continents which seemed to complement each other as pieces of jigsaw puzzle. To back his theory he studied rock samples and fossils in both the continents and compared geological data.
In January 1912, he proposed his ideas of continental drift to the scientific world and presented his discourse at the ‘Geological Association’ in Frankfurt and ‘Society for the Advancement of Natural Science’ in Marberg. Though he presented proof to back his theory, his ideas were met with criticism from the scientific community.
Later in 1912 he embarked on second expedition to Greenland but the small team fell short of food supplies and had to cut short their trip. He came back the following year and continued his teaching job.
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With the advent of the World War I, he was inducted into the German army and his regiment faced severe action in Belgium. Alfred suffered multiple injuries and he was absolved from active service but he served in the weather department of the army.
During the same time he continued his work on ‘Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane’ (‘The Origin of Continents and Oceans’) and finally published the book in 1915.
Throughout the war this determined meteorologist brought out as many as twenty scientific papers; one of them even including his study on the Treysa meteorite.
During the period 1919-23, he was involved in the research for his book ‘Die Klimate der geologischen Vorzeit’ (‘The Climates of the Geological Past’), and a revised publication of his book ‘Origin of Continents and Oceans’.
After the war, Wegener moved with his family to Hamburg when he was appointed as a meteorologist by the German navy. It was in Hamburg in the year 1921 that he was employed at the University as a senior lecturer.
In 1924, the ‘University of Graz’ offered him the position of a professor in meteorology. He continued his assessment of the second Arctic expedition and also studied the science of tornadoes through the late 1920s.
In 1929, he brought out the fourth version of ‘Origin of Continents and Oceans’ and it was in the same year that he ventured on his third scientific expedition to the Arctic. During the expedition they tested the viability of the snowmobiles attached with propellers, for transportation.
In 1930, Wegener undertook the fourth expedition to Greenland with a fourteen member team. The other explorers under his guidance studied the Arctic weather and measured the thickness of ice sheet over Greenland.
Personal Life & Legacy
Wegener was married to Else Köppen in 1913 and the couple resided in Marburg with their two daughters Sophie Käte and Lotte.
During the fourth expedition to Greenland in 1930, this famous scientific explorer led a team of thirteen local inhabitants of Greenland and his meteorologist Fritz Loewe, to provide supplies to a base station in Eismitte from the West camp base station, on dog sleds.
Braving extreme temperatures only three members out of the original fifteen member squad made to the Eismitte base camp. On the return journey to West camp, Wegener was accompanied by Rasmus Villumsen; the duo set out on dog sleds and used the dogs to feed themselves through the journey.
The duo never completed the journey and Wegener’s body was found buried by a search team, on May 12, 1931, en route West Camp from Eismitte. A pair of skis was used to distinguish the burial ground.
Apparently his grave was built by Villumsen, who then proceeded towards the West Camp but was never heard of again. Upon Alfred’s demise, his brother, Kurt Wegener, was made in charge of the expedition.
The famous geophysicist is the eponym for various celestial objects which include a crater on the Moon and one on the planet Mars, an asteroid. The peninsula where his graveyard was discovered is also named after this famous meteorologist.
The ‘Alfred Wegener Medal & Honorary Membership’ is awarded by the ‘European Geosciences Union’ to scientists who have made exceptional contribution in the field of earth, planetary and hydrological sciences.