Scientists probing the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic in 1912 say that a very rare conjunction of the Earth, Sun and Moon may have led to unusually high numbers of icebergs in the doomed vessel's path.
“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,” says Donald Olson, physics prof at Texas State uni.
The Moon's close approach coincided with its being in line with the Sun, a regular event which causes the high "spring tides" which all mariners are familiar with. But in this case the Moon was unusually near, more able to affect the oceans, and on top of that the Earth had passed its closest in a very long while to the Sun just the day before.
According to a Texas State statement highlighting the scientists' calculations:
In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did were, well, astronomical.
The theory goes that the unusually high tides this produced caused many icebergs to float off beaches where they had run aground in the natural course of events, meaning that the Titanic's route was unusually heavily littered with the vast, frozen bulks - with fatal consequences. Of course, it's also the case that the doomed liner was trying to make a fast trip to New York - the shipping lines of the day vied for the "Blue Riband" awarded to the record-holding vessel - and this will have led her captain to steam fast and take the shorter and so more northerly route.
"The Titanic failed to slow down, even after having received several wireless messages warning of ice ahead,” admits Olson. “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.”
Olson and his colleagues' research is featured in April's Sky & Telescope magazine. ®