March 7th, 2012
09:21 AM ET

Researchers: Rare astronomical alignment may have doomed Titanic

Did the moon and sun conspire to sink the Titanic?

In a way, yes, researchers at Texas State University say.

Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, members of the physics faculty at the university in San Marcos, teamed up with Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, to determine how the iceberg the liner struck late on April 14, 1912, came to be in the North Atlantic shipping lanes. More than 1,500 people died when the liner sank less than three hours after hitting the berg.

The researchers theorize that the berg that sank the ship originated in Greenland and was stuck on the coast on Labrador or Newfoundland in early January 1912. Icebergs that become stuck there usually experienced significant melting before regaining enough buoyancy to float away from the coast.

But on January 4, the moon was near full and at its closest distance to the Earth in 1,400 years. A day earlier, Earth was at perihelion, its closest distance to the sun all year. The alignment of Earth, sun and moon created an exceptionally strong "spring tide" which could have refloated icebergs grounded on the northwestern Atlantic coast, the researchers said.

“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,” Olsen said in a university press release.

The website Titanic Facts reports that in April 1912 there were about 300 icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping lanes, the most seen in the route between Europe and North America in 50 years.

“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. That could explain the abundant icebergs in the spring of 1912," Olson said in the release.

The abundance of icebergs that year would also be something the Titanic's experienced captain, Edward Smith, would not have predicted. He'd been sailing the North Atlantic for 26 years, according to Titanic Facts, and had not reduced the Titanic's speed despite receiving warnings of bergs ahead of his ship.

"The Titanic failed to slow down, even after having received several wireless messages warning of ice ahead,” Olson said. “They went full speed into a region with icebergs. That’s really what sank the ship, but the lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into the path of the Titanic."

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Filed under: Earth • History • Science
soundoff (153 Responses)
  1. Philip

    Washingtontonian? Holy crap. Coloradan. See how easy? he he. ThomasD? Is you?

    March 8, 2012 at 1:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Philip

    God is gay sympathetic. Otherwise, America's gays would still be in their closets, and Israel's gays would be?

    March 8, 2012 at 1:56 am | Report abuse | Reply
  3. gay day

    if god were gay, we would be nay. get a clue, eh?

    March 8, 2012 at 2:02 am | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Philip

    Money is only the principle of the matter. If you wish to violalate this principle, file for fraudulent claims against US. Many "American" "lawyers" advertising on TV will help you drefraid US. God bless.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:09 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. A mericsan Sllutsky

    Just to be on the safe side... (in case ther is no "god")...let's keep "gods", natures, AND mans laws OUT of the bedromm. ty.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:32 am | Report abuse | Reply
  6. TheBossSaid

    "Not even God can sink this ship!". But an iddy biddy iceberg can!

    March 8, 2012 at 3:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
  7. madmaninthemiddle

    It was Obama's fault.

    March 8, 2012 at 7:36 am | Report abuse | Reply
  8. arpad the magyar

    If the tides were that strong, the ocean would not have been calm "like a mill pond" according to Captain Smith. Something doesn't line up here.

    March 8, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • This guy

      The strong tides were in January, loosening the icebergs up several months earlier to start their journey southward into the shipping lanes.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. Some Random Guy

    It was no ones fault but the captian

    March 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. R R Reynolds

    Titanic sank because the Captain was going to fast for the conditions; compounded by the Deck officer ordering the helm to be put over in the wrong direction.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:15 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. JeanneLH

    Wow!! Very interesting. Thanks to the researchers!!

    March 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. danmac

    Ironically, if they had not turned and struck the iceberg straight on they would not have sunk. The watertight doors that were part of the ship's design would have prevented more than two or three compartments from flooding. Because the ship struck the ice at an angle and rubbed along it for nearly half its length resulted in ten compartments being breached, which was the end.

    March 15, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse | Reply
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