Usually when one writes about weather-related marine disasters in which ships are lost — and I have written several such pieces — the agent of disaster is usually storm-related or perhaps enveloping fog. Winds and high seas are the usual culprits, but icing and fog can also play a major role. One major exception was the sinking a century ago this month of the great ship Titanic.
We all know that the Titanic sunk after encountering an iceberg near the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, but why the ship and berg collided in such conditions remains a mystery that can never be fully resolved. This infamous event occurred on a clear night with unusually calm seas. Could weather conditions have played a role in both the collision and the rescuing of survivors?
I won’t dwell here on the full story of the ship and the disaster here. The media this month will be full of items on the event in this centenary year, and many, many books and articles have been written in the past on the details. A brief synopsis of the story will be followed by a look at the weather conditions surrounding the voyage and the disaster.
As most know, the Titanic was on its maiden voyage carrying 1317 passengers and 884 crew across the Atlantic Ocean from Southampton, England to New York City. Four days out, just before midnight of 14 April 1912, she side-swiped an iceberg that tore open her hull below the waterline. As her compartments flooded rapidly, there was little time to warn and evacuate all aboard. In less than three hours, the great ship slid beneath the surface to the bottom of the ocean taking at least a thousand souls with her.
The RMS Titanic undergoes sea trials on April 2, 1912. Courtesy US National Archives and Records
Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Photo by F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923), public domain
At the time of her sinking, RMS Titanic was the largest passenger liner afloat, one of three Olympic class ocean liners operated by the White Star Line (her sister ships were the RMS Olympic and the RMS Britannic, which had been originally named Gigantic). Built with the latest technology, she was considered “unsinkable.” Her safety features in some areas were highly advanced; however, for others, she only just met the outdated safety regulations in place. One of the most glaring deficiencies was her lack of adequate lifeboat capacity; she only carried space for about a third of those aboard. In actual design, the ship had davits for up to 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4000 people, but only sixteen were hung; four collapsible lifeboats were also carried. It should be noted that this total was four more than the sixteen required by the British Board of Trade regulations.
Her Captain was Captain Edward John Smith, the most senior (four decades) of the White Star Line’s captains. He had been transferred from RMS Olympic to command Titanic on her maiden voyage. (Photograph taken aboard the Olympic by author unknown and was published following the sinking, in 1912. Source: Wikipedia)
The Fateful Voyage
The voyage began when Titanic pulled away from the Southampton, England dock at noon Wednesday, 10 April 1912. Before setting out on her trans-Atlantic leg, Titanic made stops in Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland. She weighed anchor from Queenstown at 1:30 pm on the 11th to began her trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City.
After passing Fastnet Rock off the Irish Coast, Titanic began her Atlantic crossing whose first leg covered 3000 km (1860 miles) to reach a spot in the North Atlantic known as “the corner” — a point southeast of Newfoundland on the Grand Banks where westbound vessels would make a major course change toward Nantucket Shoals.
Route of Titanic to her sinking location 1912
The weather out of Ireland cleared and was rather mild through Saturday 13 April when Titanic crossed a weather cold front where the ship met strong winds and waves to 2.4 m (8 ft). However, by Sunday evening, the winds had dropped to light northwesterly, the seas had calmed, and skies were clear and cold — the air temperature having dropped from near 43°F (6°C) to near freezing.
Official testimony before the British Inquiry into the disaster by Second officer Charles Lightoller described the weather conditions on Sunday evening, the 14th, as:
“From 6 p.m. onwards to the time of the collision the weather was perfectly clear and fine. There was no moon, the stars were out, and there was not a cloud in the sky. There was, however, a drop in temperature of 10 deg. [F] in slightly less than two hours, and by about 7.30 p.m. the temperature was 33 deg. F., and it eventually fell to 32 deg. F.”
Crew member John Poingdestre described the night as fine weather but “terribly cold.” And a good, clear night for seeing lights.
Early Sunday, the bridge crew began receiving warnings from other ships via wireless radio of drifting ice in the Grand Banks area. It is in the official records that Captain Smith received at least three of these directly. The first came at 9 am from the RMS Carona, which noted “bergs, growlers and field ice.”
Icebergs in the North Atlantic, photo coutesy US Coast Guard
The next, coming around noon from the Steamship Baltic described ice conditions with bergs within five miles (eight kilometres) of the Titanic’s course and near the location where the sinking would occur.
“Have had moderate variable winds and clear fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athinai reports passing icebergs and large quantity of field ice today in latitude 41.51 north, longitude 49.52 west.”
Several hours later, a message from the Californian of the Leyland Line reported ice about 19 miles (30 km) to the northward of Titanic’s track: “Latitude 42.3 north, longitude 49.9 west. Three large bergs 5 miles to southward of us. Regards.”
Next, the German Steamship Amerika sent a message to Titanic for relay to Cape Race and the US Hydrographic Office in Washington: “Amerika past two large icebergs and 41.27 N., 50.8 W., on the 14th of April.” This message was received at the Hydrographic Office at 10:51 pm EST that evening.
The transcript of the American Inquiry by the US Senate into the accident reveals the following interchange from the Californian:
The fourth message was sent to the Titanic at 9.05 p.m. New York time, on Sunday, the 14th of April, approximately an hour before the accident occurred. The message reads as follows:
“We are stopped and surrounded by ice.”
To this the operator of the Titanic replied:
“Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race.”
The testimony also indicates radio chatter among several ships in the area reporting ice in the region. The steamer Mesaba reported: “Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice.”
From this, the Inquiry concluded that:
“This enables the committee to say that the ice positions so definitely reported to the Titanic just preceding the accident located ice on both sides of the track or lane which the Titanic was following, and in her immediate vicinity. No general discussion took place among the officers; no conference was called to consider these warnings; no heed was given to them. The speed was not relaxed, the lookout was not increased, and the only vigilance displayed by the officer of the watch was by instructions to the lookouts to keep "a sharp lookout for ice." It should be said, however, that the testimony shows that Capt. Smith remarked to Officer Lightoller, who was the officer doing duty on the bridge until 10 o'clock ship's time, or 8.27 o'clock New York time, "If it was in a slight degree hazy there would be no doubt we should have to go very slowly", and "If in the slightest degree doubtful, let me know." The evidence is that it was exceptionally clear. There was no haze, and the ship's speed was not reduced.”
It is also known that passengers aboard Titanic had noticed drifting ice during that afternoon.
We now know that the ice conditions in the North Atlantic during April 1912 were the worst observed in the past fifty years, attributed to a warm winter along the Greenland coast, which calved many bergs from the island’s ice sheet. The northwest winds behind the cold front that had passed Titanic would have pushed drifting ice and icebergs southward into the waters through which Titanic steamed.
View of the North Atlantic and surrounding land, displaying the International Ice Patrol's Area Of Operations (AOR) in yellow from 40 degrees North latitude to 50 degrees North latitude and 39 West longitude to 57 West longitude. The 48 degree North latitude line is drawn in purple within the Ice Patrol AOR. Trans-Atlantic shipping lanes from Europe to North America are drawn in red. Typical iceberg paths & distrubution within the AOR are represented by numerous white triangles along the 200 meter bathymetry from Greenland to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The position of the 1912 Titanic sinking is represented by a white asterisk at the tail of Grand Banks near the bottom of the Ice Patrol AOR. Courtesy, U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center
Captain Smith ordered a course alteration to take the ship further south but maintained the ship’s speed at nearly full — around 21 knots (24 mph; 39 km/h), since he did not believe the ice posed a threat to a large ship like Titanic. Some years earlier, Smith had stated in an interview that he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
The Final Hours
Despite our historical focus on the single iceberg that Titanic struck, in fact, the Titanic was sailing amongst a flotilla of icebergs. These bergs had calved off the western coast of Greenland and had joined other ice floes, known as field ice, and growlers, small icebergs or ice floes just large enough to be hazardous for shipping, moving southeastward within the Labrador Current into the Grand Banks area of the North Atlantic Ocean. This was known to the Titanic crew from radio reports from other ships such as the Baltic and the Greek steamer Athinai.
The evening of 14 April was clear but dark as there was no moon and the sea was calm, perhaps too calm. One survivor Archibald Gracie would later write “the sea was like glass, so smooth that the stars were clearly reflected.” It has been speculated that if the sea were not so calm, the splashing of waves against large icebergs would have given away its location. Two lookouts, Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, manned the crow’s nest, located 29 m (95 ft) above Titanic’s deck.
At 11:40 pm, Fleet caught sight of an iceberg and reported to the bridge officer James Moody: “Iceberg right ahead.” From the bridge, First Officer William Murdoch issued the order “hard-a-starboard” (right) used traditionally to turn a ship to the left (port). He then messaged the engine room for either ‘full reverse’ or ‘stop’, later testimony was unclear as to which order was given. While that type of order was common in such maneuvers, it appears in the post-crash analysis that it was not the best option for Titanic. If the ship’s speed had remained at full, they may have ran past the iceberg and missed the collision.
The maneuver did avoid a head-on meeting with the large iceberg but in the sideswipe of the ice, an underwater ice spur raked along Titanic’s starboard side for an estimated seven seconds. (Note that while an iceberg may tower over the sea surface, around ninety percent of the berg remains underwater.) The scraping opened the side of the ship. Initially, it was believed that the ice produced a large tear in the hull, but recent surveys of the wreck estimates the opening at a modest 12 to 13 square feet (1.1 to 1.2 m2) that may have been due to rivets popping along the seam of the hull plates.
In any case, the ship began to fill with water and started to sink into the 6500-ft (2000-m) deep water. With the bow sections filling with water, the great ship slide nose-first into the frigid waters. About two and a quarter hours after the collision, the foredeck was submerged and the strain on the hull was too great. The ship’s keel broke apart and both sections now headed for the sea floor.
The Titanic goes down. Conceptual painting by Willy Stöwer, 1912, public domain.
The size of the ship, the speed and manner of which it sunk and the lack of adequate lifeboats to hold all aboard contributed to many passengers leaping into in the frigid waters. Those that had escaped the sinking vessel but not reached a lifeboat found themselves immersed in waters with an estimated temperature of around 28°F (−2°C). Some would have died quickly from heart attacks caused by the sudden immersion in the cold waters. Others, treading water or clinging to debris, passed through the classic progression of hypothermia and died either by drowning or by hypothermia in less than an hour.
The RMS Carpthia reached the site of the sinking at around 4 am on 15 April, having steamed through the icefield at high speed, dodging icebergs along the way. Many who had been able to reach the lifeboats died during the frigid night, particularly those in the collapsible lifeboats. By the time two other rescue vessels the Mount Temple and the Californian arrived at around 9:15 am, all known survivors had been rescued, though they searched the waters in hope of finding other survivors. Between 1,490 and 1,635 people on Titanic perished — 68 percent of those aboard. An additional number of those who were rescued succumbed shortly after their rescue due to their exposure to the cold.
When the sun rose the morning of 15 April, the Captain of the Carpathia Arthur Rostron saw they were surrounded by ice “I also saw icebergs all around me. There were about 20 icebergs that would be anywhere from about 150 to 200 feet [45 to 120 m] high and numerous smaller bergs” To those aboard Carpathia the scene was described as like being in the midst of a vast plain of white ice with iceberg hills peppered around them.
This is believed to be a photo of the iceberg Titanic struck. Photo taken by the cable ship MacKay-Bennett hired by the White Star Line and dispatched to recover Titanic's dead in the water. (Image Credit: International Ice Patrol)
We will never conclusively know the size of the iceberg that Titanic encountered, but newspaper reports placed it at between 30 to 100 feet (9-30 m) high and 200 to 400 feet (60-120 m) long. In testimony before the British Commission, Titanic seaman Joseph Scarrott described the shape of the iceberg as resembling “the Rock of Gibraltar looking at it from Europa Point. It looked very much the same shape as that, only much smaller.” Fourth Officer on the Titanic Joseph Boxhall estimated its height at 30 ft (9 m) during the US Senate Inquiry. Several photographs taken at the time and shortly thereafter have been claimed as the fatal berg. One taken by Stephan Rehorek from the German steamer Bremen has a strong resemblance to Scarrott’s description. (For a discussion on this photograph, see The Iceberg Resurfaced? by Henning Pfeiffer.)
The Californian and a Mirage?
One of the many mysteries surrounding the Titanic disaster concerns the freighter Californian. Following the collision, several surviving passengers and crewmen saw the lights of a ship nearby estimated to have been around 6 miles (10 km) distant. In the hearings that followed the event, the ship was determined to have been the Californian. Though her crew saw lights in the distance (from the ship and distress rockets), she does not see the Morse code lamp messages from Titanic nor receive its wireless distress transmission. As a result, the Californian passed the scene without knowledge of the need for her assistance.
An article in the Smithsonian Magazine written by British historian Tim Maltin suggests that atmospheric conditions caused super refraction, a superior mirage, that prevented the Californian crew from seeing the signals. (Maltin has also written a book on his findings A Very Deceiving Night and a video documentary that is scheduled to premier on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 PM EST on 15 April 2012.) A British government investigation of the disaster in 1992 had suggested that super refraction may have played a role, but there was no follow up until Maltin’s research.
Maltin’s analysis of the weather records for that night indicate that the very dry arctic high pressure system prevented fog from forming in the area where the air flowing over the Gulf Stream crossed over to the waters of the frigid Labrador Current. Usually, this area is one of extreme fog, but because of the air’s low humidity, no fog formed. However, a strong temperature inversion (cold air underlying warm air) did. As I have discussed in my article on the superior mirage, these conditions can produce such a mirage.
Inversion Temperature Profile: Temperature increases with height.
Two characteristics of a superior mirage are that objects may appear higher, taller or at times smaller than they actually are, and that the region above the surface appears as a haze layer between the apparent horizon and the true one. Such mirages may also cause the earth’s curvature to appear flattened. With the calm sea and dark sky, the presence of the fatal iceberg may have been hidden by a mirage from the lookouts until it was almost upon them, as was the case.
Superior Mirage causes mountains to appear higher than they actually are. The dashed line indicates the actual mountain ridge line.
According to testimony by the Californian’s captain Stanley Lord, they had seen a ship nearby around the time of the collision but it appeared to them too near and too small for Titanic and therefore concluded it was another vessel that did not have wireless radio. Lord testified that his ship had repeatedly signaled the ship in question, but he received no reply — even though Titanic was sending out distress signals. And although the Californian lookouts did see the distress rockets fired by Titanic that appeared higher above the surface than would be expected, and the crew were unsure what they saw and thus ignored them.
The conditions under a superior mirage could easily distorted the light from the signal lamps so that the messages were neither recognized nor understood for what they were.
While this new hypothesis, which seems reasonable to me, may not conclusively clear up one of the Titanic mysteries, it at least gives a reasonable possibility for the Californian’s departure from the scene.
Aftermath: The International Ice Patrol
In the aftermath of the Titanic’s sinking, an international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention was convened in London on 12 November 1913, at which the patrolling the Atlantic ice regions was thoroughly discussed. In the conventions signed on 30 January 1914, the international representatives agreed to begin ice observations and establish an ice patrol service consisting of vessels, which would “patrol the ice regions during the season of iceberg danger in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The International Ice Patrol’s prime mission was the monitoring of iceberg activity in the region of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and warning ships plying those waters of potential danger. Those thirteen nations whose vessels transited the North Atlantic joined to form the patrol. However, the bulk of the patrols became the task of United States Revenue Cutter Service (later the US Coast Guard) in 1914 with added reports on berg locations and weather supplied by other vessels transiting the area.
After the Titanic disaster, the US Navy quickly undertook to patrol the water off the Grand Banks for the remainder of 1012 and through 1913, assigning the cruisers USS Chester and USS Birmingham (see photo to right, courtesy US Navy) to patrol duty in the region. The US Navy, however, found they could not spare the ships for the patrol, and thereafter the task was transferred to the US Revenue Cutter Service under the Department of Treasury, the forerunner of the current US Coast Guard. Their patrols began in 1915 when they assigned ice patrol duty to the Cutter ships Miami and Seneca. From then until 1931, the patrol consisted of two vessels that alternated patrol runs along the southern edge of the ice limits. A third vessel joined the patrols in 1931.
Excluding the two world war years, the patrol has actively tracked iceberg activity in the region. Initially the patrols were undertaken solely by ships. Following the Second World War, however, aircraft began taking most of the reconnaissance patrols, aided in the last fifty years by satellite observations. Currently, fixed-wing Coast Guard aircraft conduct the primary reconnaissance work. The ice reconnaissance detachment, usually composed of eleven aircrew and four ice observers, fly a HC-130J aircraft out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina about five days every other week during the ice season.(Photo to right, A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft overflies an iceberg during patrol in the Arctic Ocean, courtesy United States Coast Guard
The International Ice Patrol continues to provide daily charts and bulletins of ice activity to all ships in those waters. These reports are issued by the Canadian Ice Service under the North American Ice Service.
Example of Ice Analysis issued by the International Ice Patrol by the Canadian Ice Service
While the early ship patrol’s kept track of iceberg numbers, locations and paths, scientific and technical research was also conducted to make the task simpler and the warnings more effective. For example, the patrols found the naked human eye with binoculars could see farther at night than searchlight-aided searches. Oceanographic studies undertaken during the patrols set the groundwork for the forecasting tools in use today.
Sources and main tracks of icebergs in Canadian waters. Courtes y, Canadian Coast Guard
Since the patrol began operations nearly a century ago, no ship that has heeded the Patrol’s reports has collided with an iceberg in its region of jurisdiction. Other areas not covered by the patrols remained a hazard as shown by the tragic example that occurred on January 30, 1959 when S.S. Hanshedtoft struck an iceberg about 64 km (40 miles) south of Cape Farewell, Greenland. Also on her maiden voyage, she sank without a trace, taking 95 passengers and crew. As recently as 2010, a vessel ignoring the ice patrol’s warnings collided with an iceberg. Fortunately, the damage to this vessel was not catastrophic.
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