How the Bermuda Triangle Works

By: Lee Ann Obringer & Patrick J. Kiger  | 
A magnifying globe shows a plane and boats over a map of the Bermuda Triangle
A magnifying globe shows a plane and boats over a map of the Bermuda Triangle, the site of many 'mysterious' disappearances. Lightguard/Getty Images

You won't find it on any official map, and if you're sailing in the Atlantic, you're likely not to even notice when you cross its vague boundaries. Nevertheless, the infamous Bermuda Triangle — also sometimes known as the Devil's Triangle — for decades has been the subject of numerous books, TV programs, newspaper and magazine articles and websites, and inspired plenty of dread and fascination.

To believers in the Triangle, which lies roughly between the Bahamas, Bermuda and the east coast of the U.S., it's a very real place where numerous ships, planes and people have disappeared with no good explanation - but plenty of supernatural explanations.


To skeptics, who point to the lack of data proving that the area has any unusual number of lost craft, it's an example of how pseudoscience and popular culture can influence the unwary to believe in ideas that have no real basis in fact.

One of the big dilemmas of solving the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle is that there's no general agreement on where exactly it is. According to an article on the Triangle in "The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience," some sources describe the Bermuda Triangle as being about 193,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) in area, while others ascribe to it an area three times that size and include the Azores and the West Indies as part of the dreaded region [source: Shermer et al.].

Since a magazine writer first coined the phrase "Bermuda Triangle" in 1964, the mystery has continued to attract attention [source: Gaddis]. When you dig deeper into most cases, though, they're much less mysterious. Either they were never in the area to begin with, they were actually found, or there's a reasonable explanation for their disappearance.

In this article, we'll look at the history of the Triangle and how it came to become a subject of popular fascination, and examine the explanations — some farfetched, others not so much — that have been offered for why it might be a particularly dangerous place.


The Bermuda Triangle Mystery

map of the bermuda triangle
A detailed map of the area usually referred to as the Bermuda Triangle. The actual geographic boundaries are undefined and often shift.

Centuries before anyone had ever heard of the Triangle, the island of Bermuda developed a reputation as a mysterious, dangerous place where mariners faced peril. A 1609 pamphlet described the island as "a most prodigious and enchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, storms and foul weather," and even compared it to the Scylla and Charybdis, the Aegean Sea monsters mentioned in Homer's "The Odyssey." Some have pointed to Bermuda as a possible model for the site of the shipwreck depicted in William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest [source: Stritmatter and Kositsky].

But it wasn't until 1964 that the idea of the Bermuda Triangle being a mysteriously perilous place emerged. That's when Argosy magazine published an article titled "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle," which cited a string of shipwrecks and aircraft disappearances in the area, and offered atmospheric aberrations or magnetic disturbances as possible explanations [source: Gaddis].


Interest in the Bermuda Triangle continued to grow after publication of "The Bermuda Triangle," a book by Charles Berlitz and J. Manson Valentine, which sold millions of copies [source: Wonder Woman" and "Scooby Doo" used the Bermuda Triangle as a setting for episodes, and Milton Bradley marketed a Bermuda Triangle game. The Triangle featured in the 1977 Stephen Spielberg movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The band Fleetwood Mac even did a 1974 song, "Bermuda Triangle," which warned that "it might be a hole in the ocean, or a fog that won't let go" that was causing the disappearances [source: Eddy].

Yes, the '70s were prime time for the Bermuda Triangle, even as researchers who fact-checked the mystery found holes in its claims. When Fate Magazine contacted Lloyd's of London in 1975, for example, the insurer wrote back to say that its statistics didn't show that unexplained disappearances occurred there any more frequently than in other aquatic areas. The U.S. Coast Guard said it had investigated many of the incidents and found that known environmental factors, such as weather, were the likely explanations for ships' and planes' disappearances [sources: Williams, Naval Historical Center]. Pilot, librarian and author Larry Kusche, meticulously researched incidents featured in Bermuda Triangle accounts and found that many of them had in fact occurred far from the typical Triangle area.

John Reilly, a historian with the U.S. Naval Historical Foundation, told National Geographic News in 2003 that because the Triangle has a lot of traffic, it's only to be expected that some ships and planes would go down there. He compared it to "saying that there are an awful lot of car accidents on the New Jersey Turnpike" [source: Mayell].

Next, we'll look at some early well-known incidents that have been attributed to the area.


Well-known Bermuda Triangle Disappearances

Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber
A Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, similar to the Flight 19 ones that disappeared in 1945, is shown. Bernard Spragg/CC0 1.0

Here are two of the most notable incidents connected with the Bermuda Triangle. As you'll see, they have reasonable explanations for their disappearances although they're still attributed to the strange and unknown powers of the Triangle.

The U.S.S. Cyclops, 1918

In the spring of 1918, the U.S.S. Cyclops — a 540-foot- (164-meter-) long naval vessel outfitted with 50-caliber guns — took on a load of 10,000 tons (9,072 metric tons) of manganese ore in Brazil, and then sailed north to Barbados, where it was resupplied for its nine-day voyage to Baltimore harbor. But after leaving Barbados, the ship and its 309 men were never seen nor heard from again. Navy cruisers searched the ocean, but saw no sign of the ship, not even an oil slick, and the Navy eventually declared the crew lost at sea. It was the greatest loss of life in a non-combat situation in U.S. Naval history.


While the ship's fate has never been officially resolved, Marvin Barrash, a researcher who is a descendant of one of the lost crewmembers told the Washington Post that he believes a combination of events — a ship unbalanced by a very heavy load, engine breakdowns, and a big wave that struck the vessel — sent it to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench. This trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic, which would explain why the ship never has been found [source: Prudente].

U.S. Navy Avengers Flight 19, 1945

The story of Flight 19 is the best-known of the Bermuda Triangle disappearances. Five Avenger torpedo bombers took off from the U.S. Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale in the afternoon on Dec. 5, 1945. It was a routine exercise, in which they were to fly 150 miles (241 kilometers) due east, then north for 40 miles (64 kilometers), and then return to the base. All five pilots were experienced aviators, and the planes had been checked out mechanically prior to takeoff.

Nevertheless, an hour and 45 minutes after takeoff, the Fort Lauderdale tower got a call from the flight leader, Charles Taylor, who sounded confused and said that he couldn't see land. "We cannot be sure of where we are," he explained. Radio contact was lost until 10 minutes later, when other crew members' voices could be heard, sounding similarly disoriented. Twenty minutes after that, another pilot came on again. "It looks like we are entering white water...we're completely lost," he said.

After that, there was only silence. Within minutes, a Mariner seaplane and a 13-man crew were sent out to the Avengers' last-known position — only to vanish as well. For five days, the Navy searched for the lost aircraft, covering almost 250,000 square miles (647,497 square kilometers) of the Atlantic, and found no trace of them [source: McDonnell].

This account conveniently leaves out some details that would explain why Flight 19 went down. Four of the pilots were actually students who were flying to get experience. The instructor, Taylor, for some unknown reason, had asked to be relieved of his duties before takeoff, but the request was denied. Taylor also radioed that the compasses had failed. But in reality, he likely was not trusting them as he thought he was over the Florida Keys when he was actually over the Bahamas — the opposite direction.

This was actually the third flight where Taylor had gotten lost. Naval experts believe the plane ran out of fuel and crashed. As for the search plane, the Mariner, a search ship saw it explode in the sky. The sea was so rough that day, no trace of it was found [sources: McDonnell, Kusche].


More Bermuda Triangle Disappearances

SAS DC-3 Roar Viking OY-DDI
An SAS DC-3 Roar Viking OY-DDI, similar to the DC-3 that disappeared in the Triangle, is shown at the airport. SAS Scandinavian Airlines/Wikimedia

DC-3 Flight NC-16002, 1948

On December 28, 1948, a DC-3 passenger plane, considered to be one of the most reliable aircraft ever built, was flying on a route from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Miami. The weather was good, and when the plane was 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Miami, the aircraft's pilot, Captain Robert E. Linquist, contacted an air traffic control center in New Orleans to give his coordinates. This was strange as he should have been radioing Miami. That communication was the last that anyone heard from the aircraft, which had three crew members and 29 passengers aboard.

When the plane didn't arrive in Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard began a search, and was joined by the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, and other searchers. A Civil Aeronautics Board investigation later found that the aircraft's batteries were not properly charged, and that it was possible that an electrical system failure rendered the aircraft's radio and automatic compass inoperative. (The pilot could transmit messages but not receive them.)


It's likely that Linquist was mistaken about his location. In addition, he might not have known about an unexpected change in the wind, which could have taken the plane off course. With only an hour and 20 minutes' worth of fuel left, "an error in location would be critical," the board's report noted [source: CAB].

The S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen, 1963

On Feb. 2, 1963, the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen, a 19-year-old, 7,200-ton (6,532 metric tons) oil tanker was bound for Norfolk, Virginia from Beaumont, Texas carrying 15,000 tons of molten sulfur in heated tanks. But it never reached its destination.

Unlike some of the other vanished craft in the Bermuda Triangle, though the ship was never found, debris was recovered, including pieces of a raft, a life vest, and a broken oar. The ship was in poor repair and had suffered reoccurring fires around its sulfur tanks. (Once it put out to sea while still burning.)

The cooled sulfur emissions from those blazes had hardened and caked the ship's pumps, corroded electrical equipment, and even shorted out the ship's generator. Time magazine noted that the mystery was not that the ship had disappeared, but "how it had managed to put to sea in the first place."

Milwaukee's 440th Airlift Wing, Plane 680, 1965

On a clear night in 1965, a seasoned flying crew from the Air Force Reserve Command's 440th Airlift Wing flew from Milwaukee in a C-119 Flying Boxcar on their way to Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, south of the Bahamas. They landed as scheduled at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida at 5:04 p.m. and spent two hours and 43 minutes on the ground. Then they took off at 7:47 p.m. and headed toward Grand Turk, but never reached their destination. There was no indication of trouble and all radio communication was routine.

When they didn't land, radio traffic controllers started calling Plane 680 but didn't receive a response. Only a few scraps of debris were found, and those could have been tossed out of the cargo plane. Among those on board was an expert maintenance crew, so if there was a mechanical problem on the flight, there were plenty of people to take care of it. The investigation report at the time surmised, once again, that the plane had run out of fuel [source: Jones].


Did Compass Malfunctions Cause Bermuda Triangle Disappearances?

In almost every account of the mystery surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, you'll see reference to the fact that it is one of only two places on Earth (the other being the Devil's Sea off the coast of Japan) where a compass points to true north rather than magnetic north. Theorists say that this causes compasses to malfunction and ships and planes to get off-course [source: Mayell].

A compass works because its magnetic needle is attracted by the magnetism of Earth, which draws it to point to the constantly shifting Magnetic North pole. The Geographic North pole, on the other hand, is static and is located 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) north of the Magnetic pole. The variation between the two readings is known as magnetic declination (or compass variation), which can change as you move across the globe [sources: Government of Canada, USGS ].


The agonic line is an imaginary line where true north and magnetic north are in perfect alignment — there is no magnetic declination. At points west of the agonic line, a magnetic needle will point east of true north (positive declination). At points east of the agonic line, a magnetic needle will point west of true north (negative declination). Extended lines that mark the constant magnetic declination away from the agonic line are called isogonic lines [source: USGS].

In the early 18th century, Edmund Halley noticed that the agonic line was slowly moving westward. He came up with the idea of showing declination as contour lines on a map [source: Gubbins and Herrero-Bervera]. Since then, scientists have noted a westward drift of the agonic line with an average velocity of about 0.2 degrees per year. The drift is not equal in all places, however. It is stronger in the Atlantic than in the Pacific [source: Government of Canada].

Navigators must always compensate for magnetic declination when charting their courses. While the agonic line once passed through the Bermuda Triangle, it now falls within the Gulf of Mexico, rendering claims that it can contribute to disappearances in the Triangle inaccurate. Calculation errors anywhere could cause a plane or ship to go off-course. The compass malfunction theory assumes that experienced pilots and captains passing through the area were unaware of magnetic declination, which is unlikely. Not to mention that the vast majority of boaters and fliers pass through this area without incident [source: Britannica].


Plausible Theories About the Bermuda Triangle

a large ship appears to be just ahead of a large wave
Poor weather and human error are more likely than aliens to be the reason for ships and planes disappearing in the Bermuda Triange. REB Images/Getty Images

Many bizarre theories have been put forth as to why there have been so many disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. One is that alien abductions are to blame. Charles Berlitz wrote of "suggestions of inter-dimensional changeover through a passageway equivalent to a 'hole in the sky' (which aircraft can enter but not leave), [while] others believe the disappearances are engineered by entities from inner or outer space."

Others think that the Bermuda Triangle area is home to the lost city of Atlantis and remnants of its advanced technologies. Psychic Edgar Cayce said that Bimini was one of the mountaintops of ancient Atlantis and that Atlantis had some special crystals that radiated so much energy they could cause navigational equipment on ships and planes to malfunction [source: Bermuda Attractions].


But we don't need to go with supernatural reasons to explain the incidents in the Bermuda Triangle. The area is one of the most highly trafficked for amateur pilots and sailors, and more traffic leads to more accidents and disappearances. Here are some other explanations:

Weather Patterns

The Bermuda Triangle is an area where the weather can be treacherous. Most Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes pass through the area, and the Gulf Stream can cause quick, sometimes violent weather shifts. In the days before the development of modern weather forecasting, it's not hard to imagine ships being caught off guard [source: NOAA].

Waterspouts that could easily destroy a passing plane or ship are also not uncommon. A waterspout is simply a tornado at sea that pulls water from the ocean surface. Some are accompanied by winds of 125 miles (200 kilometers) an hour [source: NASA].

The Gulf Stream, which travels along the western edge of the Triangle, is extremely swift and turbulent. It can pose extreme navigational challenges, especially for inexperienced sailors. The Gulf Stream has been reported to move faster than 4-5 knots per hour (around 7-9 kph) in some areas — that's 300 times faster than the Amazon River. This is more than enough to throw sailors hundreds of miles off course if they don't compensate correctly for the current. It can also quickly erase any evidence of a disaster [source: Mayell].

Topography and Seismic Effects

The many islands in the Caribbean create lots of areas of shallow water, which can be treacherous to ships [source: NOAA]. But at the same time, some of the deepest trenches in the world are found in the area of the Bermuda Triangle, including the Puerto Rico Trench, which goes down to 27,500 feet (8,229 meters) below sea level. Ships or planes that sink into these deep trenches will probably never be found [source: Mayell].

Other possible environmental effects include underwater earthquakes, as scientists have found a great deal of seismic activity in the area. Back in 1817, a 7.4 earthquake at the northern end of the Triangle caused a tsunami that violently tossed ships as far north as the Delaware River south of Philadelphia [source: Oskin].

Methane Gas

In 2016, researchers at Arctic University of Norway caused a sensation when they announced the discovery of giant craters up to half a mile (0.8 kilometer) wide in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway, which they believed were caused by exploding natural gas that had migrated from deep oil deposits and accumulated in shallow rocks. Some newspapers seized upon the idea that such blowouts might explain the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle.

But in a media release, one of the researchers, Professor Karin Andreassen, made clear that the scientists were not making any links to the Triangle [source: CAGE]. National Geographic News described the notion that methane explosions might be the explanation for disappearances in the Triangle as a "fringe" theory [source: Howard].

Human Error

As we have already seen, many of the Bermuda Triangle disappearances can be attributed to good ol' human error — people misreading compasses, making poor navigational decisions, misunderstanding their location and the like. It's worth noting that as navigational equipment has improved, there have been far fewer instances of mysterious disappearances in the waters of the Atlantic.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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