Brief history of the plate tectonics theory

The theory of plate tectonics was not created from scratch by a genius’ mind. Like every scientific theory, it results from centuries of observations and compilation of many scientists’ works. It started as a speculation and had to be proven with hard evidence before being completely accepted by the scientific community.

Brief History

Nonetheless, we consider Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist of the beginning of the 20th century, as the father of the theory that he called at that time “the continental drift”. His book “The Origin of Continents and Oceans”, published in 1915, is considered as the beginning of modern plate tectonics, even if the theory was only widely accepted in a refined version in the 1960s.

The main idea of Wegener and others was that modern continents formed a single landmass in the past. This idea was supported by simple observations like the fact that South-American and African coastlines fit so well, or that we can find the same fossils in similar sedimentary rocks on both continents.

The theory needed an explanation for the continental drift, a kind of engine that would implement the motion of tectonic plates. The continental drift was strongly criticised during the first half of the 20th century, until WWII: during the war, the latest radar technology was used to map the seafloor. Rapidly, evidence pointing to seafloor spreading and effective plate motion was accumulated.

After the war, marine geology was developed, which led to the discovery of the subduction process under the continental margins. Subduction was a perfect way to balance the extension observed at the mid-ocean ridges by recycling oceanic lithosphere in the mantle. Plate tectonics theory was then widely accepted among scientists because it relied on hard evidence and could explain most of the modern geological structures (ocean basins, mountain ranges, rifts etc).