Paper No. 15
Presentation Time: 11:30 AM
DAS ANTLITZ DER ERDE (THE FACE OF THE EARTH): THE FOUNDATION STONE OF THE MODERN GLOBAL GEOLOGY
Eduard Suess’ (1831-1914) great classic, the four-volume Das Antlitz der Erde (=The Face of the Earth) was published in instalments between 1883 and 1909. Even the publication of its first volume caused a sensation: it was clear that a new era in geology had dawned, in which the geology of the entire globe was embraced to form and further develop theories of the earth’s behaviour. When Suess successfully completed the fourth volume quarter of a centruy later, he had indeed described the geology of the entire continental surface of the earth except Antarctica. This global coverage and Suess’ habit of almost hiding his theoretical discussions and conclusions amidst a running description of the globe has led to the incorrect view, that Das Antlitz der Erde was a book of regional tectonics of the globe and it was indeed used as a depository of global data for decades to come. Das Antlitz der Erde embodies a ‘long argument’ against the theory of primary lithospheric uplift, whether around volcanoes, or along mountain ranges, or embracing entire continents. In Suess’ world there was only subsidence (creating the ocean basins and causing eustatic movements) and horizontal movement (creating the mountain ranges and the rift valleys). Suess had earlier been impressed with what he called ‘the instability of large mountain ranges’ and how they collapse in their interior areas while shortening is continuing in the exterior parts. What he described was barely compatible with the contraction theory and that is why it was never understood except by few people such as Wegener and Argand. They stuck to Suess’ interpretation of individual geological structures and discarded the contraction theory. Those who did not understand Suess (Kober, Stille, Bucher, etc.) kept the contraction theory but dismissed Suess’ tectonic interpretations. What plate tectonics taught us is that Suess was right in his tectonic interpretations, but was misled by the theory then most favoured by physicists. As in Wegener’s case, it was the mechanism question that bogged him down. The golden lesson Das Antlitz der Erde teaches us is not to take our more physically-minded brethren too seriously when they protest too much against what geology plainly shows.