Why the Titanic Really Sank

Posted by Mike Tirone - Friday, March 9th, 2012

We are just a few weeks away from marking the Titanic shipwreck's hundredth anniversary. And thanks to numerous books, stories, James Cameron movies, and decades of scientific analysis of the world's most famous maritime diaster, we all have our own way of imagining how the story went on that fateful, moonless night in 1912 which cost 1,517 passengers their lives.

But now scientists have a brand-new theory as to what might have been the story behind the culprit of the Titanic's wreck. We all know that the world's first “unsinkable” ship went down because of it striking an iceberg. But what was a massive iceberg doing in the typically open seas of the northern Atlantic?

Researchers have questioned Captain Edward Smith's disregard of warnings that icebergs were in the area where the ship was sailing, for soon-to-be a century. But the Captain was the most experienced in the White Star Line and had made the exact same voyage via the North Atlantic Sea on several occasions. Therefore the giant iceberg had been a surprise for all on board, especially the most knowledge Smith.

titanic shipwreckAs Reuters explains, “Greenland icebergs of the type that the Titanic struck generally become stuck in the shallow waters off Labrador and Newfoundland, and cannot resume moving southward until they have melted enough to re-float or a high tide frees them.”

Today it is being concluded that tragedy was set into motion months before that night, due to an ultra-rare alignment of the sun, the full moon, and Earth. Titanic's perpetrating iceberg was sent floating in the ships path because of a full moon on January 4th, 1912 that may have created unusually strong tides that sent a flotilla of icebergs southward.

Astrophysicist Donald Olson, of Texas State University-San Marcos, has a team of forensic astronomers examining every particular aspect of the external roles played in the Titanic's sinking. They have examined the moon's role and investigated speculation by the late oceanographer Fergus Wood that an unusually close approach by the moon in January 1912 could have produced such high tides. Due to the tides, far more icebergs than usual managed to separate from Greenland, floated still fully grown, and navigated through the channel ways of the North Atlantic into shipping lanes. Those lanes had been moved south that spring because of previous reports of icebergs.

From Reuters,

Olson said a "once-in-many-lifetimes" event occurred on January 4, 1912, when the moon and sun lined up in such a way that their gravitational pulls enhanced each other. At the same time, the moon's closest approach to earth that January was the closest in 1,400 years, and the point of closest approach occurred within six minutes of the full moon. On top of that, the Earth's closest approach to the sun in a year had happened just the previous day.

According to National Geographic, during new and full moons, the sun, Earth, and the moon are arranged in a straight line with the sun and moon intensifying each other's gravitational pull on the planet. This then results in low tides being lower than usual and high tides being higher-- a phenomenon called a spring tide. That full moon on January 4, 1912 was a spring-tide alignment which ended just six minutes before the moon made an unusually close swing by Earth.

titanic iceberg map

From National Geographic,

Olson believes the iceberg boom was the result of a rare combination of celestial phenomena, including a "supermoon": when the moon is full during its closest monthly approach to the Earth. ...

It was the closest lunar approach, in fact, since A.D. 796, and Earth won't see its like again until 2257. That combination of a very close moon and the celestial alignment added up to an especially strong gravitational pull on the Earth and therefore very high tides.

Similarly, this "supermoon" that Olsen discusses was seen just last year at this time, March 19th (seen below courtesy of National Geographic). "This configuration maximized the moon's tide-raising forces on the Earth's oceans," says Olsen, "That's remarkable."


As the map indicates, if the icebergs were to crack off of Greenland that January, they would not have reached the Titanic's path by April, yet icebergs do not move that fast. But many older icebergs are stranded in shallow waters off Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada, and the January 4 full moon's high tides could have dislodged the icebergs and continued south on the current around Newfoundland and directly into the path of the Titanic.

The timing and sure fate of these natural events and human misjudgment has lead to literally 100 years of speculation and questions. The Titanic's maiden voyage ending in the most famous disaster at sea impacted both England and the United States trade routes, societal shifts, and forever questioning what happened that night in April.

As we remember the 100th anniversary this year, it's important to think of the greater picture that the Titanic had on the western worlds but also the incredibly rapid modernization of transportation, trade, news coverage, and prevention of epic disasters the world has advanced with in just one century. But with this new information, it goes to prove that even with how quickly the global society can advance and evolve, we are still dictated by our the globe and it's celestial partners.

As Olsen quite frankly summed up his research and the grandiose of it, “in astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did was, well, astronomical.”


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