Continental drift was originally proposed by Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, in 1912. Wegener used the fit of the continents, the distribution of fossils, a similar sequence of rocks at numerous locations, ancient climates, and the apparent wandering of the Earth's polar regions to support his idea. Wegener used his observations to hypothesize that all of the present-day continents were once part of a single supercontinent called Pangaea.
Fossils of the same species were found on several different continents. Wegener proposed that the species dispersed when the continents were connected and later carried to their present positions as the continents drifted. For example, Glossopteris, a fern, was found on the continents of South America, Africa, India, and Australia. If the continents are reassembled into Pangaea, the distribution of Glossopteris can be accounted for over a much smaller contiguous geographic area. The distribution of other species can also be accounted for by initially spreading across Pangaea, followed by the breakup of the supercontinent, and movement of the continents to their present positions.
Rock sequences in South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia show remarkable similarities. Wegener showed that the same three layers occur at each of these localities. The bottom (oldest) layer is called tillite and is thought to be a glacial deposit. The middle layer is composed of sandstone, shale, and coal beds. Glossopteris fossils are in the bottom and middle layers. The top (youngest) layer is lava flows. The same three layers are in the same order in areas now separated by great distances. Wegener proposed that the rock layers were made when all the continents were part of Pangaea. Thus, they formed in a smaller contiguous area that was later broken and drifted apart.
Glaciation in South America, Africa, India, and Australia is best explained if these continents were once connected. Glaciers covered all or part of each of these continents during the same time period in the geologic past.
If the continents were in their present position, a major glaciation event that covered nearly all of the continents and extended north of the equator would be required. Geologists have found no evidence of glacial action in the northern hemisphere during this time period. In fact, during this time period, the climate in North America was warm.
Wegener proposed that the continents were adjacent to each other during the glacial event. Therefore, glaciers spread over a much smaller area in the southern hemisphere and probably did not influence the climate of the northern hemisphere.
Wegener used the distribution of specific rock types to determine the distribution of climate zones in the geologic past. For example, glacial till and striations (scratches on the rock), sand dunes, and coral reefs, indicate polar, desert, and tropical climates, respectively. The present climate zones are shown in the above figure. Note how the distribution of reefs, deserts, and glacial ice constrain the position of the rotational pole of the Earth.
Using the distribution of rock types, Wegener reconstructed the distribution of climates zones at specific times in the geologic past. He found that, unlike the present distribution, in which zones parallel the equator, the past zones occupied very different positions. This implies that the rotational pole was in very different locations relative to today. Wegener proposed an alternative interpretation. He believed that the climate zones remained stationary and the continents drifted to different locations. The drift of the continents caused the apparent movement of the climate zones.
Wegener used the distribution of climate zones to determine the location of the poles at different times in the geologic past. He found that the rotational pole appears to gradually change location, arriving at its present position only in the very recent geologic past. The apparent movement in the pole position over time is called polar wandering. Wegener offered an alternative explanation. He suggested that the poles remained stationary and that the continents changed their positions relative to the poles.
The history continues...