70 Centimetres and Rising

John Whitfield

  • The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey
    Harper Perennial, 501 pp, £9.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 00 655137 8

Alfred Wegener, born in 1880, pioneered the use of balloons in meteorology, and in 1906 broke the endurance record by staying up in the air for 52 hours. He spent several years studying the weather on Greenland, crossing the island on foot. He died there in 1930, after getting lost in a blizzard while returning from a trip to relieve stranded colleagues. In 1910, he had mentioned in a letter to his wife how nicely the east coast of South America fitted under the bulge of West Africa, something that the explorer and natural philosopher Alexander von Humboldt had remarked on a century earlier. Humboldt believed the match showed that the Atlantic Ocean was a flooded valley; Wegener tried fitting the continents together. This revealed that many features – the hills of Newfoundland and the Scottish Highlands, for example – aligned like the pattern on a broken plate. The following year, he came across palaeontological papers describing how many fossil plants and animals from Africa were also present in the Americas.

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[*] Collapse will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue.