Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

103,874 subscribers and counting ...

By in
| Human World on May 14, 2012

Did the moon help sink the Titanic?

Several months before the Titanic’s fateful encounter with an iceberg, the moon had been closer to Earth than in 1,400 years, and it was full just six minutes before.

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic was one month ago – on April 14, 1912. Astronomers at Texas State University announced in March of this year that the pull of the moon – its creation of tides in Earth’s oceans – might have played a role in the sinking of the Titanic nearly 100 years ago, causing death by ice water for approximately 1,500 people in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Titanic sinking. Painting by Willy Stöwer, 1912, via Wikimedia Commons

Texas State has a nice write-up about the moon’s possible role, which includes a cool Titanic image gallery apparently owned by one of the astronomers. The story is that an unusually close approach by the moon on January 4, 1912, would have caused abnormally high tides that might have pushed the fateful iceberg into the Titantic’s path. According to a press release from Texas State:

What they found was that a once-in-many-lifetimes event occurred on that Jan. 4 [1912]. 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—happened the day before. In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did were, well, astronomical …

Initially, the researchers looked to see if the enhanced tides caused increased glacial calving in Greenland, where most icebergs in that part of the Atlantic originated. They quickly 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.

According to the Texas State group, the answer lies in grounded and stranded icebergs. As Greenland icebergs travel southward, many become stuck in the shallow waters off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Normally, icebergs remain in place and cannot resume moving southward until they’ve melted enough to refloat or a high enough tide frees them. A single iceberg can become stuck multiple times on its journey southward, a process that can take several years.

But the unusually high tide in Jan. 1912 would have been enough to dislodge 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.

This research comes from Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. They published their findings in the April 2012 edition of Sky & Telescope, on newsstands now.

Bottom line: An especially close full moon might have caused high tides that ultimately sent an iceberg into the path of the Titantic, on April 14, 1912. That’s according to Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, who published their findings in the April 2012 edition of Sky & Telescope.