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Did the Moon help doom the Titanic?

March 7, 2012
Courtesy of Texas State University
and World Science staff

The Moon may have helped doom the ocean lin­er Ti­tan­ic—putting a clus­ter of ice­bergs in its way as it steamed to­ward a col­li­sion with one that would cost 1,500 lives, two as­tro­no­mers are pro­pos­ing.

The sink­ing with­in a few ter­ri­fy­ing hours of the crash the night of April 14, 1912 is per­haps the 20th cen­tu­ry’s most fa­mous and stud­ied dis­as­ter. And the new re­search does­n’t change the wide­spread con­clu­sion that it was com­pletely avoid­a­ble: “the Ti­tan­ic failed to slow down, even af­ter hav­ing re­ceived sev­er­al wire­less mes­sages warn­ing of ice ahead,” said Tex­as State Uni­vers­ity-San Mar­cos phys­i­cist Don­ald Ol­son, one of the re­search­ers. 

“But the lu­nar con­nec­tion may ex­plain how an un­usu­ally large num­ber of ice­bergs got in­to [its] path.”

Ol­son, with col­league Rus­sell Doescher at the uni­vers­ity and Rog­er Sin­nott, sen­ior con­tri­but­ing ed­i­tor at Sky & Tel­e­scope mag­a­zine, re­ports the find­ings in the pub­lica­t­ion’s April is­sue. 

In­spired by the work of the late oceanographer Fer­gus J. Wood of San Die­go, who sug­gested that an un­usu­ally close ap­proach by the Moon on Jan. 4, 1912, may have caused ab­nor­mally high tides, the Tex­as State team in­ves­t­i­gated how pro­nounced this ef­fect may have been.

What they found was that a once-in-man­y-lifetimes event oc­curred on that Jan. 4. The Moon and Sun had lined up in such a way their gravita­t­ional pulls en­hanced each oth­er, an ef­fect well-known as a “spring tide.” The Moon’s per­i­gee—clos­est ap­proach to Earth­—proved to be its clos­est in 1,400 years, and came with­in six min­utes of a full Moon. On top of that, the Earth’s perihelion—clos­est ap­proach to the Sun—had hap­pened a day ear­li­er. In as­tro­nom­i­cal terms, the odds of all these vari­ables lin­ing up in just the way they did were, well, as­tro­nom­i­cal.

“It was the clos­est ap­proach of the Moon to the Earth in more than 1,400 years, and this con­figura­t­ion max­i­mized the Moon’s tide-raising forc­es on Earth’s oceans. That’s re­mark­able,” Ol­son said. “The full Moon could be any time of the month. The per­i­gee could be any time of the month.” 

In­i­tial­ly, the re­search­ers looked to see if the en­hanced tides caused in­creased gla­cial breakups in Green­land, where most ice­bergs in that part of the At­lantic orig­i­nat­ed. They real­ized that to reach the ship­ping lanes by April when the Ti­tan­ic sank, any ice­bergs break­ing off the Green­land glaciers in Jan. 1912 would have to move un­usu­ally fast and against pre­vail­ing cur­rents. But the ice field in the ar­ea the Ti­tan­ic sank was so thick with ice­bergs that res­cue ships were forced to slow down, and even ship­ping lanes were moved many miles to the south for the whole 1912 sea­son. 

Where did so many ice­bergs come from? The Tex­as State group main­tains that the an­swer lies in grounded and stranded ice­bergs. As Green­land ice­bergs trav­el south­ward, many be­come stuck in shal­low wa­ters off Lab­ra­dor and New­found­land. Nor­mal­ly, ice­bergs stay in place and can’t re­sume mov­ing south­ward un­til they’ve melted enough to re­float or a high enough tide frees them. A sin­gle ice­berg can be­come stuck re­peat­edly on its jour­ney south­ward, a pro­cess that can take years. But the un­usu­ally high tide in Jan. 1912 could have dis­lodged many of those ice­bergs and move them back in­to the south­bound ocean cur­rents, where they would have just enough time to reach the ship­ping lanes for that fate­ful en­coun­ter with the Ti­tan­ic, the sci­ent­ists rea­son.

“As ice­bergs trav­el south, they of­ten drift in­to shal­low wa­ter and pause along the coasts of Lab­ra­dor and New­found­land. But an ex­tremely high spring tide could re­float them, and the ebb tide would car­ry them back out in­to the Lab­ra­dor Cur­rent where the ice­bergs would re­sume drift­ing south­ward,” Ol­son said. “That could ex­plain the abun­dant ice­bergs in the spring of 1912. We don’t claim to know ex­actly where the Ti­tan­ic ice­berg was in Jan­u­ary 1912—no­body can know that—but this is a plau­si­ble sce­nar­i­o in­tend­ed to be sci­en­tif­ic­ally rea­son­able.”


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The Moon may have helped doom the ocean liner Titanic—putting a cluster of icebergs in its way as it steamed toward a collision with one of them that would cost 1,500 lives, two astronomers are proposing. The sinking within a few terrifying hours of the crash the night of April 14, 1912 is perhaps the 20th century’s most famous and studied disaster. And the new research doesn’t change the widespread conclusion that it was completely avoidable: “the Titanic failed to slow down, even after having received several wireless messages warning of ice ahead,” said Texas State University-San Marcos physicist Donald Olson, one of the researchers. “But the lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into [its] path.” Olson, with colleague Russell Doescher at the university and Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, report the findings in the publication’s April issue. Inspired by the work of the late oceanographer Fergus J. Wood of San Diego, who suggested that an unusually close approach by the Moon on Jan. 4, 1912, may have caused abnormally high tides, the Texas State team investigated how pronounced this effect may have been. What they found was that a once-in-many-lifetimes event occurred on that Jan. 4. The Moon and Sun had lined up in such a way their gravitational pulls enhanced each other, an effect well-known as a “spring tide.” The Moon’s perigee—closest approach to Earth—proved to be its closest in 1,400 years, and came within six minutes of a full Moon. On top of that, the Earth’s perihelion—closest approach to the Sun—had happened a day earlier. In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did were, well, astronomical. “It was the closest approach of the Moon to the Earth in more than 1,400 years, and this configuration maximized the Moon’s tide-raising forces on Earth’s oceans. That’s remarkable,” Olson said. “The full Moon could be any time of the month. The perigee could be any time of the month.” Initially, the researchers looked to see if the enhanced tides caused increased glacial breakups in Greenland, where most icebergs in that part of the Atlantic originated. They realized that to reach the shipping lanes by April when the Titanic sank, any icebergs breaking off the Greenland glaciers in Jan. 1912 would have to move unusually fast and against prevailing currents. But the ice field in the area the Titanic sank was so thick with icebergs that rescue ships were forced to slow down, and even shipping lanes were moved many miles to the south for the whole 1912 season. Where did so many icebergs come from? The Texas State group maintains that the answer lies in grounded and stranded icebergs. As Greenland icebergs travel southward, many become stuck in shallow waters off Labrador and Newfoundland. Normally, icebergs stay in place and can’t resume moving southward until they’ve melted enough to refloat or a high enough tide frees them. A single iceberg can become stuck repeatedly on its journey southward, a process that can take several years. But the unusually high tide in Jan. 1912 could have dislodged many of those icebergs and move them back into the southbound ocean currents, where they would have just enough time to reach the shipping lanes for that fateful encounter with the Titanic. “As icebergs travel south, they often drift into shallow water and pause along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. But an extremely high spring tide could refloat them, and the ebb tide would carry them back out into the Labrador Current where the icebergs would resume drifting southward,” Olson said. “That could explain the abundant icebergs in the spring of 1912. We don’t claim to know exactly where the Titanic iceberg was in January 1912—nobody can know that—but this is a plausible scenario intended to be scientifically reasonable.”