Continental Drift Theory

Continental Drift Theory was put forward by the German scientist Alfred Wegner in 1915.

According to the Continental Drift Theory, part of the crust are capable of horizontal movement round the globe causing the continents to slowly change their positions in relation to one another.

The fact that South America is a mirror image of Africa is presented as a proof of the continental drift theory (see video below for an animation showing the migration of both of these continents).

For hundreds of millions of years, all the land of Earth was joined together in one large mass or super continent. Scientists call it Pangaea (meaning “all lands” in Greek). Then about 200 million years ago the land began to drift apart. It broke into two pieces, and scientists have called the continent in the north Laurasia and the continent in the south Gondwanaland  (named by Eduard Suess, an Austrian geologist).The two large continents continued to break apart into the smaller continents that exist today. Scientists call this movement ‘continental drift’.



Forces responsible for drifting of continents (According to Alfred Wegner)

According to Wegener, the drift was in two directions:

  1. Towards the equator due to the interaction of forces of gravity, pole-fleeing force (due to centrifugal force caused by earth’s rotation) and buoyancy (ship floats in water due to buoyant force offered by water)
  2. Westwards due to tidal currents because of the earth’s motion (earth rotates from west to east, so tidal currents act from east to west, according to Wegener).
  • Wegener suggested that tidal force (gravitational pull of the moon and to a lesser extent, the sun) also played a major role.
  • The polar-fleeing force relates to the rotation of the earth. Earth is not a perfect sphere; it has a bulge at the equator. This bulge is due to the rotation of the earth (greater centrifugal force at the equator).
  • Centrifugal force increases as we move from poles towards the equator. This increase in centrifugal force has led to pole fleeing, according to Wegener.
  • Tidal force is due to the attraction of the moon and the sun that develops tides in oceanic waters (tides explained in detail in oceanography).
  • According to Wegener, these forces would become effective when applied over many million years, and the drift is continuing.

The evidences in support of the continental drift theory:

Jigsaw Fit:

The similarity in outline of the coastlines of eastern South America and West Africa had been noted for some time. The best fit is obtained if the coastlines are matched at a depth of 1,000 meters below current sea level

Jigsaw fit

Geological Fit:

When the geology of eastern South America and West Africa was mapped it revealed that ancient rock outcrops (cratons) over 2,000 million years old were continuous from one continent to the other.

geological fit

Tectonic Fit:

    • Fragments of an old fold mountain belt between 450 and 400 million years ago are found on widely separated continents today.
    • Pieces of the Caledonian fold mountain belt are found in Greenland, Canada, Ireland, England, Scotland and Scandinavia. When these land masses are re-assembled the mountain, belt forms a continuous linear feature.
tectonic fit

Glacial Deposits:

    • Today, glacial deposits formed during the Permo-Carboniferous glaciation (about 300 million years ago) are found in Antarctica, Africa, South America, India and Australia.
    • If the continents haven’t moved, then this would suggest an ice sheet extended from the South Pole to the equator at this time – which is unlikely as the UK at this time was also close to the equator and has extensive coal and limestone deposits.
    • If the continents of the southern hemisphere are re-assembled near the South Pole, then the Permo-Carboniferous ice sheet assumes a much more reasonable size
Glacial Deposits

Fossil Evidence:

    • There are many examples of fossils found on separate continents and nowhere else, suggesting the continents were once joined. If Continental Drift had not occurred, the alternative explanations would be:
    • The species evolved independently on separate continents – contradicting Darwin’s theory of evolution.
    • They swam to the other continent/s in breeding pairs to establish a second population. 
Fossil evidence

Criticism faced by Continental Drift Theory: 

  • Wegener failed to explain why the drift began only in Mesozoic era and not before.
  • The theory doesn’t consider oceans.
  • Proofs heavily depend on assumptions that are generalist.
  • Forces like buoyancy, tidal currents and gravity are too weak to be able to move continents.
  • Modern theories (Plate Tectonics) accept the existence of Pangaea and related landmasses but give a very different explanation to the causes of drift