Titanic MoonIt’s been nearly a century since the epic Titanic disaster, and now scientists believe they’ve discovered an unlikely culprit for the historic sinking – the moon.

In April of 1912, the massive ship hit an iceberg, as everyone knows.

“But the lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into the path of the Titanic,” said Donald Olson, a Texas State University physicist whose team of forensic astronomers examined the moon’s role.

Ever since the Titanic went down in the wee hours of April 15, 1912 killing 1,517 people, scientists have studied Captain Edward Smith’s apparent disregard of warnings that icebergs were in the area.

Smith was easily the most experienced captain in the White Star Line. He’d been chosen for this voyage because of his vast knowledgeable.

Greenland icebergs usually get stuck in the shallow waters off Labrador and Newfoundland, and can’t keep moving south until they’ve melted enough to re-float – or a high tide frees them, Olson said.

The late oceanographer Fergus Wood speculated that an unusually close approach by the moon in January 1912 could have produced such exceptionally high tides that many more icebergs than usual somehow managed to separate from Greenland.

Those icebergs floated, still fully grown, into shipping lanes that had been relocated south that spring due to the reports of icebergs.

On January 4, 1912, Olson said, the moon and sun lined up in such a way that their gravitational pulls enhanced each other. Furthermore, the moon’s closest approach to Earth that January was the closest approach in 1,400 years, and the point of closest approach took place within six minutes of the full moon.

As if that weren’t enough, the Earth’s closest approach to the sun in a year had just taken place the day before.

“This configuration maximized the moon’s tide-raising forces on the Earth’s oceans,” Olson said. “That’s remarkable.”

In order to reach the shipping lanes by mid-April, the iceberg that sank the Titanic must have broken free from Greenland in January 1912. The high tide caused by the “once-in-many-lifetimes” combination of astronomical events would have been sufficient to dislodge icebergs and give them enough buoyancy to reach the shipping lanes by April, he said.

Olson’s team has also tried to use tide patterns to figure out precisely when Julius Caesar invaded Britain and to prove the legend that Mary Shelley was inspired by a full moon shining through her window when she wrote the classic tale of “Frankenstein”.

So it would seem that Captain Smith had a good excuse for under-reacting to a report of ice in the Titanic’s path. He had no reason to think that the icebergs were as plentiful or as big as they turned out to be, Olson said.

“In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did was, well, astronomical,” he said.

The new research will appear in next month’s issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

More in the video below.