What sank the Titanic? New theories emerge

Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Featured, Great Big World | Comments Off

Scully, 6, last name not given, holds a model of the Titanic, as he poses for pictures with Lload Walsh, as they wait to greet the disembarking passengers of the MS Balmoral Titanic memorial cruise ship at its first stop in Cobh, Ireland, Monday, April 9, 2012. The cruise is one of the many events planned around the 100th anniversary since the boat sank. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

After an entire century that included government investigations and countless books and movies, we’re still debating what really caused the Titanic to hit an iceberg and sink on that crystal-clear chilly night.

Maybe there’s more to blame than human folly and belief in an “unsinkable” ship. Maybe we can fault freak atmospheric conditions that caused a mirage or an even rarer astronomical event that sent icebergs into shipping lanes. Those are two of the newer theories being proposed by a Titanic author and a team of astronomers.

Such theories are important “but at its most basic what happened is they failed to heed warnings and they hit the iceberg because they were going too fast,” said James Delgado at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The White Star company, which built the Titanic, advertised the ship in this poster.

With this week’s 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking, the interest in all things Titanic is steaming faster than the doomed cruise ship on its maiden voyage.

Mirage? One of the novel new theories says Titanic could have been the victim of a mirage that is similar to what people see in the desert. It’s the brainchild of Tim Maltin, a historian who has written three books about Titanic. The latest, an titled “A Very Deceiving Night” emphasizes how the atmosphere may have tricked the Titanic crew on a cloudless night.

“This was not avoidable human error,” Maltin said in a telephone interview from London. “It’s just about air density difference.”

Reports from the time said it was a beautiful clear night when the Titanic sank. But something else strange was happening, Maltin said. For a couple of days there had been something weird going on in the air over the North Atlantic, and it was reported by all sorts of ships, including the crew on Titanic, Maltin said.

What was so strange? The unusually cold sea air caused light to bend abnormally downward, Maltin said. The Titanic’s first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, saw what he described as a “haze on the horizon, and that iceberg came right out of the haze,” Maltin said, quoting from the surviving second officer’s testimony.

Other ships, including those rescuing survivors, reported similar strange visuals and had trouble navigating around the icebergs, he said.

The Titanic departs Southampton, England, on its maiden Atlantic voyage on April 10, 1912. The boat sank a few days later after it hit an iceberg..

British meteorologists later monitored the site for those freaky thermal inversions and said 60 percent of the time they checked, the inversions were present, Maltin said.

The same inversions could have made the Titanic’s rescue rockets appear lower in the sky, giving a rescue ship the impression that the Titanic was smaller and farther away, Maltin said.

Blame the moon? Physicists Donald Olson and Russell Doescher at Texas State University have another theory that fits nicely with Maltin’s. Olson — who often comes up with astronomical quirks linked to historical events — said that a few months earlier, the moon, sun and Earth lined up in a way that added extra pull on Earth’s tides. The Earth was closer to the moon than it had been in 1,400 years.

They based their work on historical and astronomical records and research in 1978 by a federal expert in tides.

The unusual tides caused glaciers to break and drop icebergs into the ocean on the coast of Greenland. Those southbound icebergs got stuck near Labrador and Newfoundland but then slowly moved south again, floating into the shipping currents just in time to greet the Titanic, the astronomers theorized. Maltin said the icebergs also added a snaking river of super-cold water that magnified the mirage effect.

Tides and mirages may have happened, but blaming them for Titanic’s sinking “misses the boat,” said Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University disaster expert.

“The basic facts of Titanic are not in dispute: The boat was going too fast in dangerous waters,” Clarke said. If Titanic had stopped for the night because of ice like the British steamship Californian did, “tides and mirages wouldn’t have mattered.”

Warnings issued: On April 14, the day it hit the iceberg, the Titanic received seven heavy ice warnings, including one from the Californian less than an hour before the fateful collision. The message said: “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.” Titanic sent back a message that said “Shut up. We are busy.”

Clarke said people keep looking for additional causes “because if it’s nature or God, then we’re off the hook, morally and practically.”


Reported by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press from WASHINGTON, D.C. He can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears

The New York Times carried news of the sinking of the Titanic on April 16, 1912.