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. Karaya

    It must be good to have a tenure at Texas State University, getting paid for absolutely irrelevant and unprovable research which is of no consequences whatsoever.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Susan

      You must be one of those people that thinks an education is baaadddd! How sad!

      March 7, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • mac

      Amen to that

      March 7, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • UHhello

      Here is my perception of your statement and "Troubles" statement below. Sure it is easy to sit back and poo poo these studies and research during hind site. The thing you don't know here is what else could have been discovered that would prove valuable. The fact is many worthwhile facts and observations can be made that can be used in the future to help so many area's by funding some of this research. Simply standing on your pedestal and saying "we shouldn't pay for that study" is saying YOU know what the results will be and that for certian they will be worthless to this and future generations. We are human, we like to learn and ask questions it is in our nature. Who are you to tell me or anyone else what questions we should ask and where we should look for answers? Wait I know the answer....your a republican and that much closer to GOD because you know it all but will turn around and call these inquistive people "elitist's". I get your hypocracy.....loud and clear. ***In the case that my assumption is incorrect about your political leanings I would ask you to get your head out of your ars and start reading more because you NEED it. ***

      March 7, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • tom landry

      While this info seems meaningless and pointless to you it plays a vital role in science. Most of these researchers will end up researching complete crap and never have anything useful to provide but these people are the reason we know so much about earth, space, etc

      March 7, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      I'd say it's good to have someone looking into what factors were involved in one of the worst marine disasters in the past 100 years. Knowing more about what caused it matters, not just for historical reasons but to understand what is happening in the world and how those things affect not only passenger liners 100 years ago but, say, container ships today. It can be kind of important to know what is likely to change the number or location of icebergs in shipping lanes, after all.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • tom

      Oh, ok Karaya.

      So you are one of those conservatives who thinks information is only worthwhile if it fits into one of the following:

      a. Enables some fat cat to make even more money.
      b. Enables us to start a war.

      ok, got it now.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wha???

      If anyone was curious, I did some basic math. Based upon the distances of the moon during that particular perigee, compared to its "mean" distance, tides would have been about 16% above normal forces. Hard to believe the Moon has an eccentricity in its orbit of over 30,000 miles. Learn something new every day.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karen

      Exactly right Karaya. Those were my thoughts exactly.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • JAM

      Really? Knowing when abnormal tides are prevalent is of no use? Really? Something like 80% of the worlds goods are moved by ship!

      March 7, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ghost Rider

      Unprovable? He basically proved his assertion by analyzing the orbital data of the Moon and Earth and comparing to the historical record of ice movement in the north atlantic. Read the article again before making a negative statement!

      March 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duck Butter

      Let me guess, you are Republican, right ?

      March 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      Well said Uhhello! Karaya – get back outside, the sand misses your head.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Is Our Children Learning?

      I agree 100% but you are speaking in a manner that is at least 6 grades past where Karaya stopped.
      Remember, college is just a place where students are brainwashed into becoming liberals.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan: the researcher wannabe

      What kind of eduction does Susan seek? A degree in trivial pursuit?

      March 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. TRouble

    I'll bet some good taxpayer money went into this study. As interesting as it is, I sure hope not. lol

    March 7, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  3. The Jackdaw

    A crazy person at work just told me that liberals would blame the solar flares on global warming.....I didn't know how to respond....I realize this article has nothing to do with either subject but I had to share the crazy to get it off my chest....

    March 7, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • tom landry

      Tell them they are losers who need to get a grip on life.. calling ppl "liberals" like they are from another country or race.. how PATHETIC

      March 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sofa King

      This "crazy" person is absolutely correct. You can learn something. Open your ears, and your mind.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wha???

      Actually, considering the distance of the Sun (93 millions miles) and the fact that the Sun's mass is 330,000 times that of the Earth, and the fact that the Earth's temperature rose by 1/10 of a degree over the last decade versus the fact that the Sun's surface temperature is approximately 10,000 degrees Farenheit, maybe, just maybe, the rise in solar flares has to do with the Sun's natural cycle of sunspots and absolutely nothing to do with this tiny speck we call a planet.

      Anybody who would think to blame a rise in solar flares on the Earth's "global warming" IS crazy. Sorry, but it's true.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • CB

      You are dealing with a crazy person, aka a wingnut. Global warming has absolutely nothing to do with
      solar flares but you must understand that facts have no relevance to someone inside the bubble.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Jackdaw

      What??? – He is not suggesting that liberals will mistakenly blame global warming on the sun, he is saying that liberals will say that because the earth is warming, there are more solar flares!

      March 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. person

    It must be good to have a cheap Internet connection, paying little to make absolutely irrelevant and thoughtless comments on historical research about which you have no expertise whatsoever.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
    • mac

      And you do?, I dont see any " expertise " from you on here, come on, bring it on, you are no better than the rest of us on here

      March 7, 2012 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. cmg1980

    Every step that ship took drove her closer to tragedy. 1500+ died in order for nature to remind us we weren't so perfect.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • tom landry

      Nature didnt remind us of anything.. if you READ the article the ship would have been fine if it SLOWED DOWN and reduced its inital speed. It takes ONE !diotic boat captain to kill 1,500 ppl... look at that french captains situation running the boat in shallow water as a perfect example

      March 7, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      tom landry – *whispers* I think you mean the Italian captain...

      March 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Thanks for!

      March 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. james stirk

    Do people actually get paid to create drivel like this.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  7. aasdfgh`

    schettino to girlfriend did the earth move for you too .

    March 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. meadowmuffin

    Drivel??? If we don't figure out why tradgies happen then how are we ever supposed to learn how to avoid them. I think it is quite important for the shipping industrie to know this information. Just because it is information about a tradget before our time does not make any information we can gain any less relevent. Nothing more irrating than ignorant people.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • meadowmuffin

      industry, tradgy
      ...sorry to all the gramer police out there

      March 7, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • ratickle

      You misspelled "gramer" on purpose didn't you?

      March 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      ratickle – whone whould whope, but whone never noes.... 😉

      March 7, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. hippediva

    The Captain ignored numerous ice warnings and was sailing at top speed through a dangerous ice field. Sounds like human error to me, not some silly celestial backdraft!

    March 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Burst Bubble

      Yes, it mattered about the ship's speed, however; failing to consider the builders error too would be a significant
      error in judgement. The builder allowed too much "pig iron" into the rivets. Pig iron is the term for iron casting which
      indicates too many impurities in the metal that cause it to be weak. The iceberg stripped the rivet heads off the boat
      and made a big flap open up. The speed of the ship caused more water to rush into the hull and thus it sank in 3 hours.

      March 7, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Johnibn

    I thought it hit the iceberg because those two were making out on the deck and it distracted the lookout tower.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  11. studdmuffins

    When we no longer need the oceans for commerce or food, that will be the day I agree this research is worthless. Ships still ply the seas. That said, research into how icebergs traverse into warmer waters is essential to safety of life at sea.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MyTake

    Again the uneducated and/or science deniers come out enforce to peddle their ignorance or blather about some half-baked non-theory on what "really" happened.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Igor

    I have a fine spell-checker... it came with my PC... it plainly marks for my review... miss steaks eye can knot sea....

    March 7, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sofa King

    Aliens destroyed the Ti tanic because they didn't want us to know the truth.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. This_blank

    So what the movies not coming out in 3-D now?

    March 7, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • IgorBob

      WHAT!!!??? The ship SINKS???? Great... spoil the ending for me know.... ;-P

      March 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
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