Moon contributed to Titanic sinking

2012-03-07 13:30

San Antonio - A century after the Titanic disaster, scientists have found an unexpected culprit for the sinking: The moon.

Anyone who knows history or has seen the blockbuster movies knows that the cause of the transatlantic liner's accident 100 years ago in April was that it hit an iceberg.

"But the lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into the path of the Titanic," said Donald Olson, a Texas State University physicist whose team of forensic astronomers examined the moon's role.

Ever since the Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15 1912, killing 1 517 people, researchers have puzzled over Captain Edward Smith's seeming disregard of warnings that icebergs were in the area where the ship was sailing.

Smith was the most experienced captain in the White Star Line and had sailed the North Atlantic sea lanes on numerous occasions. He had been assigned to the maiden voyage of the Titanic because he was a knowledgeable and careful seaman.


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, Olson said.

So how was it that such a large number of icebergs had floated so far south that they were in the shipping lanes well south of Newfoundland that night?

The team investigated speculation by the late oceanographer Fergus Wood that an unusually close approach by the moon in January 1912 may have produced such high tides that far more icebergs than usual managed to separate from Greenland, and floated, still fully grown, into shipping lanes that had been moved south that spring because of reports of icebergs.

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.

"This configuration maximised the moon's tide-raising forces on the Earth's oceans," Olson said. "That's remarkable."

His research determined that to reach the shipping lanes by mid-April, the iceberg that the Titanic struck must have broken off from Greenland in January 1912. The high tide caused by the bizarre combination of astronomical events would have been enough to dislodge icebergs and give them enough buoyancy to reach the shipping lanes by April, he said.


Olson's team has sought to use tide patterns to determine exactly when Julius Caesar invaded Britain and prove the legend that Mary Shelley was inspired by a bright full moon shining through her window to write the gothic classic Frankenstein.

The team's Titanic research may have vindicated Captain Smith - albeit a century too late - by showing that he had a good excuse to react so casually to a report of ice in the ship's path. He had no reason at the time to believe that the bergs he was facing were as numerous or as large as they turned out to be, Olson said.

"In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did was, well, astronomical," he said.

The research will appear in the April issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

  • ludlowdj - 2012-03-07 13:45

    Expansion joint failure as proven by the two sections of hull found 5 miles before the titanic sunk. Had the titanic only hit the iceberg it would most likely have remained afloat, however the discover of the hull sections indicate stress fractures at the main desk expansion joint which ran all the way around the ship causing to sections of the hull to break away before the Titanic hit the iceberg. The iceberg took the blame when in reality the ship would have sunk anyway.

      Tony - 2012-03-07 14:16

      Is that why the sister ship had repair work done to the joint?

      Godfrey - 2012-03-07 15:01

      I don't really care about this sort of speculation. But your account is just more speculation. There were enough eyewitnesses to the fact that the Titanic hit an iceberg and was intact as she begin to sink "the stern section remained motionless and high out of the water for 30 seconds or more...". Further according to Wikipedia, "The most notable finding at the discovery was that the ship had split apart, the stern section lying 1,970 feet (600 m) from the bow section and facing opposite directions". The hull broke up as she sank and the heaver sections cause be the hull breaking would have dropped vertically while the two main pieces of hull would plane away from the original impact site.

      Zion - 2012-03-08 10:27

      On the spot:Ludlowdj: The overall steel plates were not up to standard due to the owners wanting to cut costs on the ship's construction. The costs were already exorbitant. The plates could not handle the low sea temperatures and became porous and brittle. Yes, it is believed that had the plates been up to standard the ship would not have sunk.

  • Glyn - 2012-03-07 15:42

    What is an "expansion joint" in a hull? Talking rubbish! The was no "expansion joint" in the riveted hull! All riveted joints give a tiny bit but art are not called expansion joints.

      Peter - 2012-03-07 15:59

      Hmmmm ... I think you should reserve further comment till you have done some more research into general principles of ship building dude.

      Paul - 2012-03-07 16:27

      Glyn you are an idiot. Of course there are metal expansion joints built into a ship.

      richard.hipkin - 2012-03-07 16:29

      Ai Glyn, you have Internet... use it.

      ludlowdj - 2012-03-08 13:21

      Godfrey, go pull the design plans for the Titanic, as for Wikipedia, as a user updated site it gives the most accepted answer and not the true answer as it were. Numerous studies have been and are being done on the titanic as it is starting to disintegrate very quickly now. the last study shows that two sections of the hull lie on the ocean floor nearly 5 miles before it hit the iceberg. The titanic twin was also retuned to port and an upgrade was done to the DESK LEVEL EXPANSION JOINTY| which was V shaped unlike the modern day key hole shaped expansion joint used there after. My so called speculation is based solely on scientific evidence. So yea if science is just speculation I guess I'm speculating.

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