Over the years there have been many theories as to why Titanic sank in 1912. Some are outlandish, such as a submarine or White Star switching Titanic for Olympic. The wreck weakened several beliefs, such as Titanic going down in one piece or that there was 300 foot gash. We have had theories about brittle steel contributing to its demise. Now competing theories appearing in The Smithsonian magazine and National Geographic once again take us into the world of speculative theorizing.
British historian Tim Maltin, after reviewing evidence gathered from weather records, survivor accounts, and previous studies believes “super refraction” prevented not only seeing Titanic in time but prevented the nearby California from really seeing clearly a ship in distress. The atmospheric conditions with air cooling from the bottom with warm air above creates a light inversion and a mirage making objects appear higher (and nearer) than they really are resulting in a false horizon. And the area between the real and false horizon would have haze. The result was that on a moonless night Titanic sighted the iceberg when it was too close. On the California, Titanic appeared too small and too near to be an ocean liner–an effect created by this unique super refraction. This would explain why California did not see the Morse lamp due to the distortion and later Titanic’s rockets. Titanic fired distress rockets 600 feet into the air but the distortion made them appear lower than the ship.
On the other hand, National Geographic has astronomer Donald Olson of Texas State University-San Marcos proposing that the large amount of icebergs in 1912 was a rare alignment of Earth-Moon-Sun intensifying the gravitational pull on the planet. The result are very low tides and very high tides (called a spring tide). Since icebergs do not travel fast, older icebergs were affected by the high tide and sent southward into Titanic’s path. And of course the rest is history.
Maltin’s claim provides more to California than Titanic. We already know Titanic was moving at night with no moon and in an area with lots of icebergs. Lookouts had no binoculars and did not see the iceberg until they were nearly upon it. Murdoch tried to port around the berg but doing so took precious time and ended up inflicting fatal damage to Titanic. Under this theory, Captain Lord appears vindicated. He claimed to not know it was Titanic, that distress rockets were not seen, and that the ship appeared to be too small. Speculation of a third ship between the two has never been proven. The theory of super refraction is fascinating. And it is possible under the right conditions but was it that way that night? The only answer is maybe since we have no conclusive evidence it did happen. Possibly experiments using those conditions might lead to answers.
As to the “supermoon” theory as some call it, that has less plausibility if for nothing else other astronomers argue back that the effect was not that great and likely did not contribute to large numbers of icebergs in the North Atlantic that year. Some speculate it was warmer water currents that may have been the cause.
It is not surprising these theories suddenly come out just before Titanic’s centennial takes place. With many people focused on Titanic, many will be drawn to them. Maltin has a book coming out about his theory and Smithsonian has a documentary called “Titanic’s Final Mystery” being televised on 15 April. So the news about this theory is more public relations than anything else. Olson has co-authored a report on this theory so again we have public relations drumming up interest.
Neither theory really gets into or changes the underlying facts. Whether you believe there was a super refraction or an unusual celestial alignment that created higher tides does little to change what happened that night. Nor does it excuse errors in judgment made by White Star, Captain Smith, or Captain Lord on Carpathia. It is speculative theorizing that sounds fascinating, possibly plausible, but in the end adds nothing to the story and 1,522 lives lost that fateful night.
Did The Titanic Sink Because Of An Optical Illusion?, Smithsonian, March 2012
Titanic Sunk by “Supermoon” and Celestial Alignment?, National Geographic, March 2012