In the early 20th century, German scientist Alfred Wegener termed the movement over geological time of Earth’s major landmasses- Europe, the Americas, Africa, Australia, Asia and Antarctica- as ‘continental drift’. However, the modern day term is plate tectonics. Wegener suggested that landmasses may have pulled apart or pushed together to create new landforms. For example, he found evidence for this when he discovered fossils in Norway that indicated they originated in a tropical climate.

Continental drift describes one of the earliest ways geologists thought continents moved over time. Today, the theory of continental drift has been replaced by the science of plate tectonics.

The theory of continental drift is most associated with the scientist Alfred Wegener. In the early 20th century, Wegener published a paper explaining his theory that the continental landmasses were “drifting” across the Earth, sometimes plowing through oceans and into each other. He called this movement continental drift. 


Wegener was convinced that all of Earth’s continents were once part of an enormous, single landmass called Pangaea.

Wegener, trained as an astronomer, used biology, botany, and geology describe Pangaea and continental drift. For example, fossils of the ancient reptile mesosaurus are only found in southern Africa and South America. Mesosaurus, a freshwater reptile only one meter (3.3 feet) long, could not have swum the Atlantic Ocean. The presence of mesosaurus suggests a single habitat with many lakes and rivers.

Wegener also studied plant fossils from the frigid Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. These plants were not the hardy specimens adapted to survive in the Arctic climate. These fossils were of tropical plants, which are adapted to a much warmer, more humid environment. The presence of these fossils suggests Svalbard once had a tropical climate.

Finally, Wegener studied the stratigraphy of different rocks and mountain ranges. The east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa seem to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and Wegener discovered their rock layers “fit” just as clearly. South America and Africa were not the only continents with similar geology. Wegener discovered that the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States, for instance, were geologically related to the Caledonian Mountains of Scotland.

Pangaea existed about 240 million years ago. By about 200 million years ago, this supercontinent began breaking up. Over millions of years, Pangaea separated into pieces that moved away from one another. These pieces slowly assumed their positions as the continent we recognize today.

Credit: National Geographic Society

Picture credit: Dreamstime.com

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