Titanic’s fate written in the stars?

By AAP + AG staff 7 March 2012
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A highly unusual combination of celestial events may have sent more icebergs into the path of the Titanic.

THE FATE OF THE TITANIC may have been written in the heavens due to an astonishing set of celestial coincidences, according to a new theory.

A rare conjunction of the Moon and Sun caused icebergs to be swept into the path of the doomed ocean liner, scientists believe.

The ‘once-in-many-lifetimes’ event brought together the Moon’s closest approach to the Earth for 1400 years, a near encounter between the Earth and the Sun, and a spring tide.

All these factors contributed to abnormally high sea levels which helped dislodge grounded icebergs and send them into the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic, it is claimed.

100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking

Preparations are now under way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster on Titanic’s maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

The huge ship, which was said to be ‘unsinkable’, struck an iceberg 600km south of Newfoundland on the night of 14 April, 1912. Within hours, the vessel had sunk without trace with the loss of 1500 lives.

Later it emerged that the Titanic had steamed at full speed into an area littered with icebergs despite warnings of the danger. But why so much ice should have been in the shipping lane at the time has long been a puzzle.

An investigation by US scientists at Texas State University may now have come up with the answer.

“Of course, the ultimate cause of the accident was that the ship struck an iceberg,” said lead researcher Dr Donald Olson. “The Titanic failed to slow down, even after having received several wireless messages warning of ice ahead.

Unusually large number of icebergs in Titanic’s path

“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.”

Titanic’s fate might have been sealed four months earlier on 4 January when there was a full Moon and spring tide.

During a spring tide the Sun and Moon line up and the combined effect of their gravity causes sea level to rise exceptionally high. On 4 January, 1912, the tug of gravity was stronger than usual.

The Moon’s perigee – its closest approach to the Earth – was closer than it had been for 1400 years and came within six minutes of the full Moon.

In addition, the Earth’s perihelion, the point at which its orbit brings it closest to the Sun, had occurred just the day before.

“It was the closest approach of the Moon to the Earth in more than 1400 years and this configuration maximised the Moon’s tide-raising forces on Earth’s oceans,” said Donald.

“That’s remarkable. The full Moon could be any time of the month. The perigee could be any time of the month. Think of how many minutes there are in a month.”

The scientists, who report their findings in Sky & Telescope magazine, initially wondered whether an abnormally high tide made it easier for more icebergs to breaking off Greenland glaciers.

But to reach the Titanic on 14 April, the icebergs would have had to move impossibly fast against prevailing currents.

A much more likely theory involved grounded and stranded icebergs.

Freak combination a disaster for Titanic

As Greenland icebergs travel south, many become stuck in shallow waters off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Normally, they stay put and cannot move until their ice melts or a high enough tide frees them. A single iceberg can become stuck multiple times during its journey southwards, a process that can take several years.

The freak high tide in January 1912 would have dislodged many of the stranded icebergs and released them into the south-bound ocean currents.

They would have had just enough time to congregate in the shipping lanes for their fateful encounter with the Titanic, according to the scientists.

Donald explained: “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. We don’t claim to know exactly where the Titanic iceberg was in January 1912 – nobody can know that – but this is a plausible scenario intended to be scientifically reasonable.”