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Why did the Titanic really sink?

Ruby O’Connor evaluates the impact of the climate on the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

What do you think of when you think of the Titanic? The 1997 film hit “Titanic” may lead many to imagine a tragic story with their favourite lovebirds – Jack and Rose. However, the origins of the fatal tale are often forgotten. The RMS Titanic was a passenger ship built by the White Star Line in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Titanic took over two years to build, and was completed in 1912. Equipped with the latest technology, it included reciprocating steam engines, a turbine engine, a double-plated bottom, and sixteen watertight compartments on the hull, and a staggering cost  of $7.5 Million (approximately $200m adjusted for inflation) to build. The ship carried 2,224 people, including the crew.

The ship was ironically considered “unsinkable”, although the origins of this belief are debated and found to be largely based in the press reports at the time about the ship. Nevertheless, the sinking of this enormous vessel– 270 meters long, and more than 28 meters high – resulted in the deaths of 1,514 people. On April 14th, 1912, at 11:40 P.M., The Titanic hit an iceberg, filling several compartments with water, and causing the ship to sink. The main reason for the sheer quantity of deaths from the wreck of this ship was the fact that it did not have enough lifeboats for everyone on the boat. In fact, they were equipped with a mere 20 lifeboats, that would be enough for only about a third of the passengers. Surprisingly, this was not illegal. The law did not require ships to carry enough lifeboats for all their passengers. 

The pop culture phenomenon almost never sparks interest in environmental factors which may have contributed to the sinking of the ship. However, it makes you wonder how are icebergs even formed? Icebergs are sculpted through a process called iceberg calving, where chunks of ice slides off glaciers and plunges into the water. The icebergs encountered by the Titanic were likely formed in Greenland, and promptly carried northwest by the West Greenland Current. The West Greenland current ends at the furthest west point of Greenland, and intercepts with the Labrador Current, which runs down alongside Newfoundland and Labrador on the Canadian coast. The icebergs are then carried by the Labrador Current south and very slightly east, at which point-if they have survived this journey,- they intercept with the North Atlantic Corridor, the route taken by the Titanic.

It may come as a surprise to reveal that icebergs rarely float down in high numbers to the location at which the Titanic collided with the iceberg, at around latitude 41° north. Rarely do they cross south of latitude 48° north. But, in a study published by John Wiley & Sons on behalf of the Royal Meteorological Society, Bigg and Wilton assert that “1912 was indeed unusual, with 1038 icebergs observed to cross 48°N”. They also explain that “in 1912, the peak number of icebergs for the year was recorded in April, whereas normally this occurs in May, and there were nearly two and a half times as many icebergs as in an average year.” In recent years, scientists have investigated what factors in the climate permitted larger numbers of icebergs to travel all the way down to the North Atlantic corridor. As it seems, the immediate weather conditions encountered by the ship, as well as long term factors such as increased iceberg calving, temperature, and wind all contributed to a high risk of the Titanic encountering an iceberg in the North Atlantic corridor.

The immediate weather conditions on the night the Titanic sank may have contributed in distinct ways to the ship sinking. Bigg and Wilton argue that at the time of the collision, the ship was in a high pressure area which extended from Novia Scotia to Ireland, causing “near freezing” winds to “transport […] icebergs and sea ice further south than is currently normal for the time of year, but not beyond the known limits to icebergs during the twentieth century.” This cold wind could thus have contributed to the survival of icebergs to the location at which the collision occurred. Another theory, “the superior mirage”, takes into account the temperature of the air and water at the time of the crash. According to Perspecta Weather, the air temperature was “in the low 40s to near freezing”. The “superior mirage” is an optical phenomenon where warm air, sitting atop colder air bends light rays downwards, warping vision. The theory asserts that the weather conditions may have generated a superior mirage and inhibited the crew of the Titanic from seeing the iceberg soon enough, or even interfered with the ability of crews of other ships to see the Titanic and its warning flares.

Biggs and Wilton assert that there was an enhanced risk of icebergs in 1912 due to weather in Greenland in the year of 1908. They say that it was “a moderately warm and wet year over Greenland” which “produced enhanced snow accumulation”. This snow in turn, according to the study “gradually soaked through cracks in the ice sheet and accumulated around its margins, which probably led to enhanced short‐term outlet glacier sliding, with resulting enhanced calving.”. In this way, Biggs and Wilton determine the cause of the enhanced number of icebergs in the shipping lane in the North Atlantic.

In contrast, they reject the astrological theory put forth by Olsen et al. in 2012 that the close position of the Moon to the Earth increased tidal stress, and therefore iceberg calving in Greenland. They also reject another common climate theory put forth by Lawrence in 2000 that low sunspot years in the cycle are associated with an increased risk of icebergs. This is done on the basis that the correlation efficient is -0.043, which is not a very strong association. 

Although the sinking of the Titanic cannot be solely attributed to external factors, it is not unreasonable to say that the climate did indeed play a role in the risks it undertook sailing in April 1912. Other causes, such as proximity of other ships, and number of rescue boats aboard certainly could have saved lives. However, the climate in the years before, and in the immediate context of the Titanic’s journey increased its risk of collision with icebergs.