continental drift, geological theory that the relative positions of the continents on the earth's surface have changed considerably through geologic time. Though first proposed by American geologist Frank Bursley Taylor in a lecture in 1908, the first detailed theory of continental drift was put forth by German meteorologist and geophysicist Alfred Wegener in 1912. On the basis of geology, biology, climatology, and the alignment of the continental shelf rather than the coastline, he believed that during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, about 275 to 175 million years ago, all the continents were united into a vast supercontinent, which he called Pangaea. Later, Pangaea broke into two supercontinental masses—Laurasia to the north, and Gondwanaland to the south. The present continents began to split apart in the latter Mesozoic era about 100 million years ago, drifting to their present positions.
As additional evidence Wegener cited the unusual presence of coal deposits in the South Polar regions, glacial features in present-day equatorial regions, and the jigsaw fit of the opposing Atlantic continental shelves. He also pointed out that a plastic layer in the earth's interior must exist to accommodate vertical adjustments caused by the creation of new mountains and by the wearing down of old mountains by erosion (see continent). He postulated that the earth's rotation caused horizontal adjustment of rock in this plastic layer, which caused the continents to drift. The frictional drag along the leading edges of the drifting continents results in mountain building.
Wegener's theory stirred considerable controversy during the 1920s. South African geologist A. L. Dutoit, in 1921, strengthened the argument by adding more exacting details that correlated geological and paleontological similarities on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1928, Scottish geologist Arthur Holmes suggested that thermal convection in the mantle was the mechanism that drove the continental movements. American geologist David Griggs performed scale model experiments to show the mantle movements.
The theory of continental drift was not generally accepted, particularly by American geologists, until the 1950s and 60s, when a group of British geophysicists reported on magnetic studies of rocks from many places and from each major division of geologic time. They found that for each continent, the magnetic pole had apparently changed position through geologic time, forming a smooth curve, or pole path, particular to that continent. The pole paths for Europe and North America could be made to coincide by bringing the continents together.
See E. H. Colbert, Wandering Lands and Animals: The Story of Continental Drift and Animal Populations (1985); T. H. Van Andel, New Views on an Old Planet: A History of Global Change (2d ed. 1994); W. Sullivan, Continents in Motion: The New Earth Debate (1995); N. Oreskes, The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science (1999).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.