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Did the moon doom the Titanic?


Bad Moon Rising

There's nothing strange about encountering icebergs in the North Atlantic Ocean 400 miles (640 kilometers) south of Newfoundland. Upon receiving iceberg warnings from his wireless operator, Captain E. J. Smith is unlikely to have exclaimed, "Icebergs? What the deuce are they doing here?" After all, April through June is high season for floating ice in the region [source: Wallace].

Granted, more icebergs than usual prowled the seas that night. The question is, can we blame the moon for their abundance, or for placing a particular iceberg in the Titanic's path? Let's examine the evidence offered by Texas State's expert witnesses.

On Jan. 4, 1912, three months before the historic night, the moon made its closest approach to Earth in 1,400 years. Remarkably, this happened within six minutes of a spring tide, a semimonthly alignment of the sun and moon with Earth that maximizes their combined gravity and produces especially high tides and tidal currents. It also came one day after the Earth had reached its yearly perihelion, or closest approach to the sun. Truly, this was a recipe for a titanic tide.

Icebergs abounded that year. In fact, 1,000 of the frigid mountains -- about twice the average number -- wandered deep enough into traffic that shipping lanes had been moved south for the season [source: Wallace]. Even so, the glut of ice forced rescue ships en route to the Titanic to slow down. The abnormally strong spring tide might explain why.

Most icebergs in the North Atlantic calve off the Greenland ice sheet and travel south. Along the way, they tend to bottom out repeatedly in the shallow coastal waters off Labrador and Newfoundland. To break free, these stranded icebergs must either melt enough to float or wait for a high tide.

Beginning to catch the drift?

According to the Texas State group, the alignment-spawned high tide of January 1912 could have dislodged armadas of icebergs, many of which would have merged into the southbound ocean currents.

It's a fascinating idea, but does it hold water? Probably not. The moon may bear the brunt of popular blame for every kind of temporary madness, from crime spikes to love, but when it comes to the Titanic tragedy, the fault lies mainly with corner-cutting construction and a lead-footed captain.

After all, similarly large groups of icebergs were recorded in other years, which suggests that space shenanigans, while possibly contributing to the icy glut, were certainly not required for it. Moreover, iceberg strikes were nothing new; as many as 15-30 incidents had occurred in previous years [source: Wallace].

The risk was sufficient to inspire editorials railing against ever-faster Atlantic crossings, which, they argued, disregarded the known hazards of fog, derelicts and ice. What set the Titanic apart was not that the ship struck an iceberg, but rather that its sinking shocked the powerful into finally taking these Cassandras seriously [source: Wallace].