Did the Moon Conspire To Bring Down Titanic?

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"I'll never let go, Jack." — Rose, Titanic

It will be 100 years next month since its tragic sinking on April 14, 1912, but the Titanic continues to haunt us and definitely still has the mojo to get people buzzing. The latest news comes courtesy of the April 2012 issue of Sky & Telescope, in which our favorite "forensic astronomer," Texas State University, San Marcos' Donald Olson, presents his hypothesis on how the moon might have contributed to the ocean liner's demise, taking 1,500 people with it into the icy depths.

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Olson has been combining astronomy with his love for historical mysteries for many years now, analyzing everything from the photographs of Ansel Adams and the paintings of van Gogh and Edvard Munch to Julius Caesar's actual landing site when the Roman general invaded Britain in 55 B.C.

He's also determined that Walt Whitman's description in A Song of Myself of a "strange huge meteor procession" was based on an actual event and has shed light on the mystery of Frankenstein's moon. Really, it's high time he tackled the sinking of the Titanic.

Granted, a number of factors contributed to the Titanic's fate. Sure, the iceberg was ultimately to blame, but the sea was unusually calm that night, making bergs harder to spot. The ship's captain was running the ship at full speed, ignoring several wireless ice warnings, out of a desire to reach New York a day earlier and garner extra headlines.

Then, as the iceberg loomed ahead, the crew tried to turn the massive ship, but they couldn't make the turn fast enough. A head-on collision might, in retrospect, have been better, since only the front compartment would have been punctured, and the ship probably would have stayed afloat.

Instead, the berg scraped all along the side of the ship, flooding each compartment in turn, and pulling the Titanic into the water bow-first.

So Olson isn't out to pin everything on the moon, but he thinks astronomy can help answer one basic question: Why were there so many icebergs in the North Atlantic waters that particular year?

Let's take a moment to review the science of icebergs. They're actually pieces of ice that originally formed on land as part of glaciers or ice shelves. Glaciers form as snow accumulates over thousands of years, each new layer compressing the layers that came before until the pressure becomes so great — usually at a depth of 60 or 70 meters — that the snow becomes glacial ice.

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Despite being frozen, glaciers nonetheless "creep" or "flow," and when a glacier reaches the ocean, pieces tend to break off, or "calve." Those pieces (the larger ones, anyway, measuring some 16 feet across or more) are what we call icebergs.

There's even a mathematical equation that can be used to predict at what point this calving process will occur, courtesy of Richard Alley, a "glaciologist" at Penn State University. You multiple the rate of spreading by the width of the shelf by its thickness, plus a constant (there's always a constant). It's missing a few variables — geometry, material properties, and the force from waves and tides, in particular — but it yields a useful model, nonetheless.

So what does the moon have to with all this? It all comes down to tides and the moon's influence thereof. Specifically, on Jan. 4, 1912, there was a rare alignment of the moon and sun, such that the two bodies' gravitational pulls added together to produce a "spring tide" — abnormally high tides.

It's a hypothesis first predicted by the late oceanographer Fergus J. Wood, according to the TSU press release; Olson and his team finally determined how this might have come about. Specifically, the moon was at its closet to the Earth in some 1,400 years (the perigee), an effect that was exacerbated because the Earth had also been at its closest approach to the sun the day before.

Olson figured it wouldn't be helpful to check to see if the higher tides led to more glacial caving in Greenland, the source of most of the icebergs in that region. The icebergs needed time to float down to the shipping lanes and get in the direct path of the Titanic.

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Why were there so many icebergs that April, that even the rescue ships were forced to slow down? Normally, as the bergs make their way out of Greenland, they become grounded in shallower waters off the Newfoundland coast, so it can take a berg several years to melt enough to "unstick" and continue its southward journey.

The unusually high tides in the winter of 1912, however, dislodged icebergs that would otherwise have remained stuck for much longer, giving them just enough time to reach the shipping lanes. "We don't claim to know exactly where the Titanic iceberg was in January 1912 — nobody can know that — but this is a plausable scenario intended to be scientifically reasonable," says Olson.

So I guess we can add yet another culprit to the ever-burgeoning list of things that contributed to one of the worst maritime disasters in history. Moon, how do you plead?

 Top photo: Photograph taken by another boat in mid-April 1912 shows the icy site where the Titanic struck the iceberg. Via How Stuff Works. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Bottom image: Sketch of sequence of events as Titanic sank, drawn by Lewis Plamer Skidmore, a passenger aboard the Carpathia, on April 15, 1912, based on eyewitness descriptions of Titanic survivor John Thayer Jr. Via PhysOrg. From the collection of Donald Olson.

 

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