Posted by: coastlinesproject | April 11, 2012

Titanic; The role of cold mirages and proxigean tides.

The Iceberg Was Only Part of It

Associated Press

In April 1912, the luxury liner Titanic departed on its maiden voyage to New York.

Published: April 9, 2012

What doomed the Titanic is well known, at least in outline. On a moonless night in the North Atlantic, the liner hit an iceberg and disaster ensued, with 1,500 lives lost.

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Hundreds of books, studies and official inquiries have addressed the deeper question of how a ship that was so costly and so well built — a ship declared to be unsinkable — could have ended so terribly. The theories vary widely, placing the blame on everything from inept sailors to flawed rivets.

Now, a century after the liner went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912, two new studies argue that rare states of nature played major roles in the catastrophe.

The first says Earth’s nearness to the Moon and the Sun — a proximity not matched in more than 1,000 years — resulted in record tides that help explain why the Titanic encountered so much ice, including the fatal iceberg.

And a second, put forward by a Titanic historian from Britain, contends that the icy waters created ideal conditions for an unusual type of mirage that hid icebergs from lookouts and confused a nearby ship as to the liner’s identity, delaying rescue efforts for hours.

The author, Tim Maltin, said his explanation helps remove the stain of blunder from what he regards as a tragedy.

“There were no heroes, no villains,” Mr. Maltin said in an interview. “Instead, there were a lot of human beings trying to do their best in the situation as they saw it.” The title of his new book, “Titanic: A Very Deceiving Night,” being published this week as an e-book, alludes to how mirages could have wrought havoc with human observations.

Scholars of the Titanic, as well as scientists, are debating the new theories. Some question whether natural factors can outweigh the significance of ineptitude. Others find the mirage explanation plausible — but only in limited scenarios. Over all, though, many experts are applauding the fresh perspectives.

“It’s important new information that can help explain some of the old mysteries,” said George M. Behe, author of “On Board R.M.S. Titanic,” a 2010 book that chronicles the letters, postcards and accounts of the ship’s crew and passengers.

The Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship of its time, a glittering icon of the good life. It carried 10 millionaires, including Isidor Straus of Macy’s, then the world’s largest department store. Like hundreds of other passengers, he perished when the ship went down — the water calm and the sky luminous with stars.

From the start, news reports and inquiries said that the ice in the North Atlantic was unusually bad that year. The New York Times, in an article shortly after the sinking, quoted United States officials as saying that the winter had produced “an enormously large crop of icebergs.”

Recently, a team of researchers from Texas State University-San Marcos and Sky & Telescope magazine found an apparent explanation in the heavens. They published their findings in the magazine’s April issue.

The team discovered that Earth had come unusually close to the Sun and Moon that winter, enhancing their gravitational pulls on the ocean and producing record tides. The rare orbits took place between December 1911 and February 1912 — about two months before the disaster.

The researchers suggest that the high tides refloated masses of icebergs traditionally stuck along the coastlines of Labrador and Newfoundland and sent them adrift into the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

“We don’t claim that our idea is conclusive,” Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State, said in an interview. But, he added, the team continues to gather new supporting evidence.

Dr. Olson said that after the study’s publication, “we found there had been remarkable tidal events around the globe — in England and New Zealand.” A Sydney newspaper, he noted, had a headline that told of “record tides.”

The icy waters that night created ideal conditions for an unusual kind of mirage, according to Mr. Maltin, who owns a public relations firm in London and has written three books on the Titanic. Andrew T. Young, an astronomer and mirage specialist at San Diego State University, helped him refine his theory.

Most people know mirages as natural phenomena caused when hot air near the Earth’s surface bends light rays upward. In a desert, the effect prompts lost travelers to mistake patches of blue sky for pools of water.

But another kind of mirage occurs when cold air bends light rays downward. In that case, observers can see objects and settings far over the horizon. The images often undergo quick distortions — not unlike the wavy reflections in a funhouse mirror.

In an interview, Mr. Maltin said he first learned of the possibility of cold mirages when reading a 1992 British inquiry on the Titanic’s sinking. It suggested that the icy waters could have cooled the adjacent air and warped images that confused the Californian, a ship nearby that could have rushed to the Titanic’s aid but instead did nothing.

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