As a young man on the planet Krypton, Zor-El—like his brother Jor-El—embarked on a career in science, although he appears to have limited himself to the field of climatography and to have displayed none of Jor-El's capacity for brilliance and creativity in a breathtaking array of scientific disciplines. Zor-El is, however, one of the very few Kryptonians on record as having believed in Jor-El and his widely ridiculed prophecy that Krypton was poised on the brink of planetary cataclysm (S No. 146/1, Jul 1961: "The Story of Superman's Life!").
When Krypton exploded, as Jor-El had predicted it would, Zor-El and Alura, his wife-to-be, survived the death of their planet along with the other inhabitants of Argo City when the entire city is hurled into outer space intact by the force of the cataclysm. According to the early texts bearing on this subject, Argo City is "enclosed in a bubble of air" when the land chunk on which it was situated was blasted into space (S No. 150/1, Jan 1962: "The One Minute of Doom!"; and others), but later texts, such as the Supergirl story in Action Comics No. 316, assert that the city was covered by an airtight plastic "weather dome" at the time of the disaster to accommodate the "atmospheric experiments" being conducted there by Zor-El (Sep 1964: "Supergirl's Choice of Doom!"; and others).
According to a Supergirl story in Action Comics No. 252, the Argo City survivors had high hopes of continued survival since they had more than sufficient air to breathe and a "food machine" to provide them with nourishment. When they discover, to their horror, that the atomic chain reaction that had destroyed Krypton has converted the ground beneath their feet to Kryptonite (later chronicled as "Anti-Kryptonite"), an element whose radiations were capable of poisoning and destroying them, Zor-El resolves the potentially fatal dilemma by covering the ground with sheet lead, thereby effectively shielding the deadly kryptonite radiations.
For years Argo City drifted through space as life returned to an uneasy normalcy for its small but hardy population. Zor-El marries Alura, and in time, a blond-haired baby girl, Kara, is born to the couple. But fate had a cruel surprise in store for the people of Argo City. One day, after Zor-EI's daughter has become a teen-ager, a swarm of meteors strikes the city, smashing gaping holes in Zor-El's kryptonite-proof lead shield and releasing deadly kryptonite radiation into the air. Within about a month virtually the entire population of Argo City succumbs to kryptonite poisoning, but not before Zor-El has placed his teen-aged daughter inside a small rocket ship and launched her toward Earth, where she would acquire super-powers identical to Superman's and achieve worldwide renown as Supergirl (May 1959: "The Supergirl from Krypton!").
For some time, it was believed that Zor-El and Alura had perished along with the rest of Argo City, but it later revealed that the scientist and his wife had survived the death of their city by escaping into the so-called Survival Zone, an alien dimension which Zor-El himself discovered (Act No. 309/2, Feb 1964, "The Untold Story of Argo City"), and from which Supergirl finally freed her parents in 1964. Zor-El and Alura then went to reside in Kandor at the Fortress of Solitude (Act No. 310/2, Mar 1964, "Supergirl's Rival Parents"). When Superman finally discovers a means of permanently enlarging the bottle city, Zor-El and Alura settled on the planet Rokyn in another dimension and help the other Kandorians to build a new society (S No. 338, Aug 1979, "Let My People Grow").
(See also Zor-L of Krypton-2)