Changing Planet

Geography in the News: The Timeless Titanic Story

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

A New Titanic is Coming

April 15th 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury passenger ship Titanic. A memorial Titanic cruise left Southampton, England, on April 8, 2012 to visit the site of the sinking. The cruise was sold out, with many of the tickets going to relatives of passengers and crew who were on the Titanic during the 1912 disaster. The cruise ship Balmoral stopped at the site of the Titanic for a memorial service.

Now Australian financier Clive Palmer has contracted to build a replica of the original one to be called Titanic II. At the reported cost of $500 million, it is scheduled to be built in China and should sail in 2016. There already is talk about potential passengers lining up for its maiden voyage.

The original Titanic was constructed by the British White Star Line in 1912. Called “The Ship of Dreams,” Titanic was the largest ship ever built at the time. At 882.5 feet (269 m.) in length, it was nearly as long as four city blocks and could carry 2,200 passengers.

On its maiden voyage, the Titanic departed Southampton, England, on the English Channel for New York City. Shortly before midnight on April 14, it struck an iceberg 1,300 miles (4,000 km.) northeast of New York and sank in just two hours and 40 minutes.

1139_titanic.GITN for NGS

Titanic actually sank 400 miles (650 km.) south of Newfoundland. In attempting to set a transatlantic world record time, Titanic’s captain chose a great circle route between England and New York City. Had the ship been 300 miles (483 km.) south of its route, it would have likely missed the iceberg field entirely.

Always the shortest distance between any two points on the earth’s surface, a great circle route can be demonstrated by stretching a rubber band between two places on a globe. Extended around the globe, a great circle bisects the earth.

Thus Titanic’s route went slightly northwestward toward Greenland, then southwestward along Newfoundland’s coast. This route, the shortest distance between London and New York, was necessary to save both fuel (coal) and time in Titanic’s quest for the speed record. This route is still used by modern ships and aircraft travelling between the United States and Europe.

During the first three-quarters of Titanic’s voyage, there was no threat of icebergs. The North Atlantic Drift, a northeastward extension of the Gulf Stream, brings warm water to the North Atlantic and bathes Europe in a temperate marine climate.

Along the western side of the Atlantic, however, cold waters of the Labrador Current flow southward, carrying icebergs from Greenland’s glaciers. The cold water and icebergs meet the North Atlantic Drift, generally east and southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Along the Grand Banks located there, icebergs are often marooned in “iceberg fields” as the strong North Atlantic Drift shears off the southern end of the Labrador Current.

New research by two physicists at Texas State University suggests that an unusual set of phenomena also colluded in the weeks preceding the disaster (Time, March 19, 2012). An alignment of the sun, earth and moon, called syzygy, combined with perihelion (when the earth is closest to the sun) apparently created unusual tidal ranges. These unusual tides may have re-floated icebergs that were “grounded” in Newfoundland’s shallow waters and the icebergs converged in the shipping lands offshore.

Near midnight on April 14, a lookout on Titanic spotted an iceberg directly in the ship’s path. Even with attempts to avoid it, the massive ship sailing at full speed (23 knots, 41 km/hr) struck the iceberg with its starboard (right) side, puncturing a number of holes below the waterline.

The iceberg breached five of Titanic’s watertight compartments. Designed to withstand a breach of four compartments, but not five, the ship was doomed. Titanic began to sink bow-first with her nose in the water and her stern, or back, high in the air. She went down in near freezing temperatures.

Titanic did not have enough lifeboats to save everyone on the ship that fateful night. Sadly, in the confusion to load women and children first, many of the lifeboats left the ship only half full. As Titanic began to sink two miles (3.2 km.) to the bottom of the ocean, more than 1,500 of her passengers and crew were still aboard.

In 1985, Robert Ballard, whose lifelong dream was to find Titanic, located the enormous ship using an underwater craft with cameras. He continued to survey Titanic’s wreckage in 1986, using a robot to explore her grand staircase, gym and other rooms. He found chairs, bowls and other objects on the seafloor.

While Ballard was careful not to disturb Titanic and her myriad reminders of the passengers and crew who died there, others have not been so reverent. To date, people have taken an approximate 6,000 items from the wreck, including dishes, lamps, a safe, a statue and pieces of the ship herself. Ballard advocates that the ship be left alone, though he does hope that some day cameras can be installed around Titanic so others can see her.

Even without cameras, however, the tragic story of “The Ship of Dreams,” will likely endure for many generations to come.

             And that is Geography in the NewsTM

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

Sources: GITN #425, “Titanic Sinks Again,” Dec. 29, 1997; Lemonick, Michael, Time Magazine, “How the Moon Sank the Titanic,” March 19, 2012;; and



Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..

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