With a little twisting, the continents fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Observations of matching rock units and fossils added to evidence that now distant continents were once linked. In 1912, Alfred Wegner proposed that instead of long-disappeared land bridges between Europe and America, the continents were instead joined, then pushed across the oceans to their present positions. This idea proved highly controversial, as did his speculation that seafloor volcanoes could be the driving force.
The evidence to support this theory did eventually come, as a byproduct of efforts to map seafloor hazards that could obstruct submarines. Working meticulously at Lamont, Marie Tharp processed sonar data to map the Atlantic Ocean. From this data, she documented a massive volcanic ridge running through the Atlantic Ocean. The identification of the Great Global Rift, published by Tharpe’s colleague Bruce Heezen in 1956, caused the lithospheric puzzle pieces to fall into place for Harry Hess, who was struggling to interpret maps of the North Pacific Sea floor. He is credited with publishing the definitive work on seafloor spreading, which in turn was finally confirmed with magnetic data by Walter Pitman in 1967.
While the 50 year time span to confirm continental drift may be a bit unusual, it nonetheless serves as a perfect example of scientists building on and refining each other’s work in the quest for scientific understanding. New projects are inspired by a hidden detail in one work, or an unanswered question in another.
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