1920 - 2006

Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift

Marie Tharp was a pioneer in the field of Earth sciences. Ocean floor topography and marine geology, as we know them today, have been shaped immensely by her scientific contributions. Her ground-breaking discoveries and exploration of the ocean floors eventually led to the establishment of the research field of plate tectonics.

Having earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1943, she further pursued a master's degree in Geology. The opportunity arose from the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which caused a lot of young men to abandon their studies to join the armed forces. While collecting her first job experience in the world of petroleum geology, a male-dominated field, in which women were not granted to carry out the field work, she pursued another bachelor's degree in mathematics.

At Columbia University she met Bruce Heezen, with whom she conducted research in marine geology. Her background as a mathematician proved as an immense advantage when analysing the copious amount of data collected from the field work aboard the research ships, which Tharp, as a woman, had not been allowed to board for many years. It took more than a decade of analysing data until Tharp was allowed to join an expedition and explore the oceans for herself.

Thanks to her findings, the theory of continental drift, which had been originally proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, was corroborated and found a renaissance in the early 1960s. This theory was originally widely scrutinized by the scientific community. Even when Tharp found evidence supporting this theory, her findings were initially dismissed as "girl talk" by her collaborator Heezen.

In 1977, Tharp and Heezen concluded their work on devising the first-ever complete world map of the ocean floors, which proved essential to explain the origin of plate tectonics and the resulting continental drift.

Written by: Valentina Gasser.