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It's Bye-Bye Florida, Hello Oil, as Geologist Alfred Ziegler Retraces How Continents Collide

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Eventually, says geologist Alfred Ziegler, Los Angeles will be a suburb of San Francisco (or vice versa), and the Mediterranean will gradually disappear as the Riviera slides into Africa. But don’t panic—those transformations won’t happen for perhaps 10 million, years.

Ziegler is far more interested, though, in where land masses have been than where they’re going. Since 1973, the 41-year-old University of Chicago professor has headed a team that is producing an atlas of the earth that goes back 600 million years into prehistory. Hardly an idle inquiry, the study has been funded by Amoco, Exxon, Shell, Mobil, Chevron and the National Science Foundation. The oil companies hope Ziegler’s computer-produced maps of previous continental configurations will guide them to the discovery of fossil fuels (oil, coal) and such minerals as copper, iron ore and phosphates. “If they don’t diversify,” he observes, “they will be out of business in another 20 or 30 years. The oil companies,” he adds, “came to us. We did not ask for any of their money.”

The principle which underlies Ziegler’s atlas is called “plate tectonics” and was developed at Columbia University in the ’60s. The old theory of “continental drift” argued that land masses floated free like icebergs. Plate tectonics counters with the view that the earth’s surface is composed of about seven major plates, or huge and masses combined with the ocean floor. These plates continually move, lock together and break apart. Certain parts of each plate are constantly being expanded by molten lava bubbling up into the ocean floors. At the same time other parts are being diminished, because the plates are “diving under continents or sliding under other plates,” says Ziegler. “We are entering a phase of collision.”

Aided by computers, Ziegler and his students are dividing history into 20-million-year epochs. The maps will show not only geological formations as they evolved, but also flora and fauna,’ and air and ocean currents. To gather data, Ziegler has led his students through the Canadian Rockies, scuba dived to a coral reef and descended to the floor of the Grand Canyon. “Geology,” he says, “is best taught in the field.” Sharing high adventure with Ziegler means putting up with his “kindly but eccentric” ways, says one student. While chiseling at a rock, Ziegler likes to pinch Copenhagen snuff and sing naughty ditties. From his hat collection, he chooses straw for the tropics, fur trim for the Rockies and an English auto cap for town.

As the eldest of four children growing up in Palmer, Mass., where his father ran a wire mill, Ziegler benefited from the academic connections of an aunt who worked at Wellesley College. She gave him rock and fossil specimens and books discarded by the school’s laboratories. “When I was 9,” he recalls, “I’d spend my time looking up the mineral specimens in the books and writing down their chemical compositions.” Ziegler graduated from Bates College with a B.S. in geology, studied for a year at MIT and then earned his doctorate at Oxford, where he met his wife, schoolteacher Margaret Kenningham. Married in 1964, they have two children, Allan, 11, and Jessica, 9. Five years ago she moved 60 miles away to Michigan City, Ind., “because,” explains Ziegler, “she could not stand bringing up a family in the big city. I can be here at the University and escape on weekends to enjoy the country life. It is unconventional, but we’re together.”

Ziegler’s fascination with fossils is not just academic. “There’s a lot of Miniver Cheevy in me,” he allows. (“Miniver loved the days of old,” goes the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem.) His only car is a 1939 Buick Special. His office is decorated with a carved Art Nouveau desk he salvaged and re-finished and with old lithographs of clamlike fossils called brachiopods.

Though academics and fuel conglomerates await Ziegler’s atlas with heavy breath, there should be intriguing material for the popular press too. His findings already indicate that Florida once belonged to a continent consisting of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia and the Mideast. Scotland used to border on Maine. And Chicago was once a tropical paradise 20 degrees south of the equator. Winks Ziegler: “People get a kick out of that sort of thing.”