Plate Tectonics and Ocean Drilling – Fifty Years On

Plate Tectonics and Ocean Drilling – Fifty Years On

What does it take to get a scientific theory accepted? Hard facts? A strong personality? Grit and determination? For many Earth Scientists today it can be hard to imagine the academic landscape before the advent of plate tectonics. But it was only fifty years ago that the theory really became cemented as scientific consensus. And the clinching evidence was found in the oceans.

Alfred Wegener had proposed the theory of continental drift back in 1912. The jigsaw-fit of the African and South American continents led him to suppose that they must once have been joined together. But in the middle of the century, the idea fell out of favour; some even referred to it as a “fairy-tale”.

It was not until the discovery of magnetic reversals on the seafloor in the early 1960s that the theory began to sound plausible again. If brand new ocean crust was being formed at the mid-ocean ridges, then the rocks either side of the ridge should show symmetrical patterns of magnetism. Fred Vine and Drummond Matthews, geologists at the University of Cambridge in the UK, were the first to publish on the idea of seafloor spreading in 1963.

But plate tectonics was still not the only theory on the market. The expanding Earth hypothesis held that the positions of the continents could be explained by an overall expansion in the volume of the Earth. Numerous twentieth-century physicists subscribed to such a view. Or, similarly, the shrinking Earth theory proposed that the whole planet had once been molten. Mountain ranges would then be formed as the Earth cooled and the crust crumpled.

Helmut Weissert, President of the EGU Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology Division, remembers the difficult exchanges that took place whilst he was a student at ETH Zürich in the late 1960s. “Earth-science-wise it was a hot time,” he recalls. “In Bern University they did not teach plate tectonics. We did not have a course on plate tectonics either. I probably first heard about plate tectonics in [my] second or third year.”

Weissert especially remembers Rudolf Trümpy, professor of Alpine geology at ETH at the time, saying that plate tectonics sounds interesting, but it does not work for the Alps. Meanwhile, younger voices at ETH, postdocs and lecturers, were becoming increasingly convinced by plate tectonic theory.

Weissert soon found himself in the midst of the controversy as his own research had a direct bearing on the debate. “I had an interesting diploma topic,” says Weissert. “I worked on continental margin successions and associated serpentinites.” Serpentinites are green-coloured rocks that are full of the water-rich mineral serpentine, and therefore must have formed on the ocean floor. The fact that Weissert was finding them in Davos, at the top of the Alps, was a good indication that modern-day Switzerland had once been part of the oceans. As Weissert succinctly puts it, “green rocks were ocean”.

The observed and calculated magnetic profile for the seafloor across the East Pacific Rise, showing symmetrical patterns of magnetism. (Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey. Distributed via Wikimedia Commons)

By 1967, interest in the theory of plate tectonics had snowballed. When the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) was launched the following year, it had its sights firmly set on finding evidence that would definitively either confirm or reject the hypothesis of seafloor spreading.

The DSDP research vessel, the Glomar Challenger, set sail from Texas in March 1968. By its third leg it had drilled 17 holes at 10 sites along the mid-Atlantic ocean ridge and was already producing results that looked like they would confirm Wegener’s theory of continental drift. “After a few legs it was clear that the seafloor spreading hypothesis was tested and proven,” remembers Weissert.

There were only eight scientists on board, but two or three of them were working on the stratigraphy of the seafloor sediments. “The stratigraphy was superb,” explains Weissert. “You have the very young [sediments near the ridge] and then at the edges of the ocean the Jurassic sediments. If you have aging crust then you have aging sediment, so the hypothesis was very clear.” If the sediments got progressively older on moving away from the ridge, then so must the crust, a sure sign that new ocean floor was being created at the ridge.

Karen Heywood, EGU Division President in Ocean Sciences, remembers how her own fascination with the theory of plate tectonics ended up sparking her career in physical oceanography. Heywood began as a physics student at the University of Bristol in the 1980s. “They said we had to write an essay on the historical development of an idea in physics,” she recalls. “I did the development of the theory of plate tectonics and seafloor spreading. I wrote this essay all about Alfred Wegener.”

“This essay inspired me to think about earth sciences,” she says. “The idea that you could apply physics to the real world was amazing. It got me into oceanography.”

Heywood went on to establish her career at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where she became the first female professor of Physical Oceanography in the UK. “I went to the UEA and Fred Vine was there. It brought me back full circle. I could not believe that this was Fred Vine, who had discovered the magnetic stripes. This was the real person and that was amazing… it was the same person that I had read about and written about in my essay as an undergraduate in the 80s.”

There were clearly strong personalities on both sides of the debate about plate tectonics, but Weissert is pragmatic about the progress of science. “You have to accept that you are part of a scientific development. Everybody makes hypotheses… We all make mistakes. We all learn. We all improve.”

Indeed, many years later, in 2001, Trümpy wrote what Weissert calls “a beautiful small article” entitled Why plate tectonics was not invented in the Alps. Trümpy magnanimously writes, “Shamefacedly, I must admit that I was not among the first Alpine geologists to grasp the promise of the new tectonics.”  And yet, he continues, “to the Alps, plate tectonics brought a better understanding”. The humans and the science move on together.

By Tim Middleton, EGU 2018 General Assembly Press Assistant


DSDP Phase: Glomar Challenger, International Ocean Discovery Program

Trümpy, R., Why plate tectonics was not invented in the Alps, International Journal of Earth Sciences, Volume 90, Issue 3, pp 477–483, 2001.

Imaggeo on Mondays: River in a charoite schist

Imaggeo on Mondays: River in a charoite schist

Polarized light photomicrograph of a thin section of a charoite-bearing schist.

Charoite is a rare silicate found only at one location in Yakutia, Russia. For its beautiful and uncommon purple color it is used as a semi-precious stone in jewelry.

Under the microscope charoite-bearing rocks give an overall feeling of movement, with charoite forming fibrous mats that swirl and fold as a result of deformation during metamorphism.

Due to the variable orientation with respect to the polarized light the charoite may exhibit different interference colors. It may be difficult to conceive, but these microstructures tell us that solid rocks can flow! Width of view: 5,4 mm.

Description by Bernardo Cesare, as it first appeared on

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at


Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Three years ago, an earthquake-induced avalanche and rockfalls buried an entire Nepalese village in ice, stone, and snow. Researchers now think the region’s heavy snowfall from the preceding winter may have intensified the avalanche’s disastrous effect.

The Langtang village, just 70 kilometres from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, is nestled within a valley under the shadow of the Himalayas. The town was popular amongst trekking tourists, as the surrounding mountains offer breathtaking hiking opportunities.

But in April 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, also known as the Gorkha earthquake, triggered a massive avalanche and landslides, engulfing the village in debris.

Scientists estimate that the force of the avalanche was half as powerful the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The blast of air generated from the avalanche rushed through the site at more than 300 kilometres per hour, blowing down buildings and uprooting forests.

By the time the debris and wind had settled, only one village structure was left standing. The disaster claimed the lives of 350 people, with more than 100 bodies never located.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Since then, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the disaster’s timeline and determine what factors contributed to the village’s tragic demise.

Recently, researchers discovered that the region’s unusually heavy winter snowfall could have amplified the avalanche’s devastation. The research team, made up of scientists from Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands, Canada and the US, published their findings last year in the EGU’s open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

To reach their conclusions, the team drew from various observational sources. For example, the researchers created three-dimensional models and orthomosaic maps, showing the region both before it was hit by the coseismic events and afterwards. The models and maps were pieced together using data collected before the earthquake and aerial images of the affected area taken by helicopter and drones in the months following the avalanche.

They also interviewed 20 villagers local to the Langtang valley, questioning each person on where he or she was during the earthquake and how much time had passed between the earthquake and the first avalanche event. In addition, the researchers asked the village residents to describe the ice, snow and rock that blanketed Langtang, including details on the colour, wetness, and surface condition of the debris.  

Based on their own visual ice cliff observations by the Langtang river and the villager interviews, the scientists believe that the earthquake-triggered avalanche hit Langtang first, followed then by multiple rockfalls, which were possibly triggered by the earthquake’s aftershocks.

A three-dimensional view of the Langtang mountain and village surveyed in this study. Image: K. Fujita et al.

According to the researchers’ models, the primary avalanche event unleashed 6,810,000 cubic metres of ice and snow onto the village and the surrounding area, a frozen flood about two and a half times greater in volume than the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Giza. The following rockfalls then contributed 840,000 cubic metres of debris.  

The researchers discovered that the avalanche was made up mostly of snow, and furthermore realized that there was an unusually large amount of snow. They estimated that the average snow depth of the avalanche’s mountainous source was about 1.82 metres, which was similar to snow depth found on a neighboring glacier (1.28-1.52 metres).

A deeper analysis of the area’s long-term meteorological data revealed that the winter snowfall preceding the avalanche was an extreme event, likely only to occur once every 100 to 500 years. This uncommonly massive amount of snow accumulated from four major snowfall events in mid-October, mid-December, early January and early March.

From these lines of evidence, the team concluded that the region’s anomalous snowfall may have worsened the earthquake’s destructive impact on the village.

The researchers believe their results could help improve future avalanche dynamics models. According to the study, they also plan to provide the Langtang community with a avalanche hazard map based on their research findings.  

Further reading

Qiu, J. When mountains collapse… Geolog (2016).

Roberts Artal, L. Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Geolog (2016).

Wildfires in the wake of climate change

Wildfires in the wake of climate change

Last year saw some of the biggest blazes in history, and may be a sign of things to come.

2017 was a record year for wildfires. California and neighboring western states saw the most destructive fire in US history, with an estimated 18 billion dollars worth of damage over the season. In central Portugal, fires caused 115 deaths over the same period. Researchers presenting at a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria, suggest this may be a sign of things to come.

With climate change, wildfires are expected to be on the rise, as fire-prone regions become hotter and drier. But how did weather and climate contribute to this disastrous season? Strong winds and warm temperatures are thought to be responsible for last year’s fires in California, but it remains unclear how much climate change contributed to these conditions. Etienne Tourigny, of the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, has been on the case.

“Would this event have been possible with or without climate change?” Tourigny asks. “It’s hard to say. What we can say is that there is a high chance that these kinds of events will be more present and more frequent in the future, especially if we see temperatures increasing as they have”

Central Portugal is already very susceptible to wildfires. It’s hot, it’s dry and it’s forested: a recipe for the perfect storm. The 2017 season was particularly tragic due to an unusual set of circumstances: a tropical cyclone passed as the Portuguese Centro Region was ablaze. The nation hoped that the hurricane would bring rain to put out the fires, but, instead, the storm passed the area by, bringing strong winds and spreading the flames.

200 thousand hectares were burned in two days. Even if this was spread throughout an entire season, it would be a very bad year. Speaking at the conference, António Ferreira, a scientific coordinator at the Research Centre for Natural Resources, Environment and Society in Coimbra, Portugal, puts it frankly: “that’s hell as it was taught in Sunday School.”

The region is also vulnerable to climate change, and an increased risk of wildfires is expected by the end of the century. New strategies are needed to prevent such losses in future. Ferreira emphasised that there is no quick fix and, to reduce the risk, policies, plans, habits and investment have to change.

Even in the high Arctic, fires present a threat. This time, it’s not a direct risk to life or infrastructure, but a threat to the environment. Nikolaos Evangeliou, from Norwegian Institute for Air Research, stated that, even in icy regions, wildfires have the capacity to alter the Earth’s climate and accelerate melting.

Thawing permafrost during the 2017 summer left Greenland’s peatlands vulnerable to wildfires and between 31 July and 21 August about 2300 hectares of peatland were burned. Seven tonnes of black carbon generated by the fires rained down on the ice sheet, making the surface darker and causing it to absorb more heat.

If the ice sheet darkens, it reduces Earth’s ability to deflect solar radiation, allowing more of the sun’s energy to warm the planet. The change in Earth’s reflectivity following last year’s wildfires was small, but it is a warning. With larger fires predicted as the climate warms, we could expect much bigger changes to the Earth’s reflectivity towards the end of the century. Such warming spells further trouble for wildfire-sensitive regions.

By Sara Mynott, EGU 2018 General Assembly Press Assistant


Evangeliou et al. Open Fires in Greenland: An Unusual Event and its Impact on the Albedo of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 20, EGU2018-12383, 2018, EGU General Assembly 2018.

Leitão et al. Dealing with climate change: how to cope with wildfire threat in a climate transition region. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 20, EGU2018-16640, 2018, EGU General Assembly 2018.

Tourigny et al. An observational study of the extreme wildfire events of California in 2017: quantifying the relative importance of climate and weather. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 20, EGU2018-9545-1, 2018, EGU General Assembly 2018.