How The Unsinkable Ship Sunk

In less than a week I will be off sailing the high seas. Maybe not sailing per say, but I will be on a research cruise for about a month, travelling across the Atlantic Ocean, taking water samples and measuring lots of nutrients (they’re really important to understanding the ocean, I swear!). Although I’m sure (hopefully) that it will be a great experience, usually when I tell people about the trip they ask about the waves, the weather, and more recently, the icebergs. Why icebergs? Well it’s been a particularly good (or bad depending on how you feel about icebergs) year for iceberg sightings in Newfoundland, with one major “-berg” making the round of every news outlet over the past few days.

Massive iceberg (April 18, 2017) on Newfoundland’s southern shore. You can read the CBC Newfoundland article HERE (Photo credit: Jo-d Martin: Facebook)

Icebergs are not uncommon to this area, as its been dubbed “iceberg alley” and even has its own website for iceberg hunters (, but the sheer magnitude of icebergs – both in number and in size – seen this spring off the coast of Newfoundland is astonishing. More, and bigger icebergs, are not a good sign though; not only does it mean that my encounter with an iceberg in a few days will be very likely (although probably not damaging to the boat in any way), but it also tells us a lot about Arctic sea ice and ice-sheet melt. And as Arctic sea ice hits its lowest level on record, these record-breaking sightings in “iceberg alley” will only continue for years to come.

So why am I preoccupied by looking up iceberg sitings around Newfoundland? Well, there was another rather famous ship that passed through “iceberg alley” on a cold, dark, April night many moons ago (in fact – 105 moons ago… wait years not moons, that doesn’t make any sense), the RMS Titanic. While some people may be more aware of the story that Kate and Leo tell, there’s a lot more than sexy drawings, Irish dancing, a guy who jumps onto a propellor, and an old lady with some expensive jewellery. There’s the boat that was constructed in Belfast, the boat that was boarded in Southampton, and the boat that now resides in 2 pieces at the bottom of the ocean, south-east of Newfoundland, on the edge of the Grand Banks. The topic of the Titanic, its history, its demise, and the exploration of its wreckage are topics that reach far beyond this article, and have been covered by countless books, articles, and documentaries (no, the movie starring Kate and Leo is not a documentary). In fact, I live in the best place if you want to obsess about the Titanic (I guess best is relative). The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, NS has a large collection of artefacts, and if you’re in Halifax you can also visit the graveyard where a number of victims were buried.

But the real question is, why did it sink and do I have to worry about icebergs next week? Let’s start at the beginning. On a very cold, calm night on April 14th, 1912 the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg, and by the early morning of April 15th, it had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. You could blame the impact on the lookouts for not spotting the iceberg in time for the ship to change direction, or you could blame the sheer number of casualties on the inaction of a nearby ship, the SS Californian, but new research by British Historian Tim Maltin in 2012 suggests that a rare and unusual optical phenomenon can actually be partially blamed for the RMS Titanic’s demise.

Maltin’s book “A Very Deceiving Night” outlines the “super refraction” that he believes contributed to the sinking of the Titanic. What is refraction? Well, in very simple terms – it’s the bending of light. It’s the phenomenon you see when you look at a straw in a drink; the straw seems to bend when you see it go into a liquid. You know it’s not actually bent, but as light passes through different mediums (e.g. air vs. water) the light path bends and refraction takes place.

The night the Titanic sunk, the North Atlantic Ocean was experiencing very unique weather conditions that led to this “super refraction”. (Check out the infographics below if you want a visual guide.)

(1) Since the Titanic was sailing across the North Atlantic, it was moving away from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream towards the cold waters of the Labrador current (this is the same reason Europe tends to be warmer than the same latitude on the Canadian/US side – the Gulf Stream keeps Europe warm, and the cold water of the Labrador current, coming from the Arctic, keeps Canada cold – oceanography lesson over). This cold current cooled the air above and forced the warmer, less dense air up, creating very cold, close to freezing air temperatures around the Titanic. This cold air created a thermal inversion, cooling from the bottom up, and the high air pressure also kept the air free of fog.

(2) A thermal inversion can reflect light abnormally, making objects seem higher up and closer than they actually are, creating a superior mirage. This can create a “false horizon” and the actual horizon may appear hazy, or foggy, as lookouts on the Titanic stated.

(3) Because of this false horizon, the calm seas, and the very starry night, the iceberg was camouflaged in a haze between the actual horizon and the false horizon created by this superior mirage.

(4) This superior mirage also wreaked havoc on the lifesaving efforts of any other boats. The SS Californian was nearby, but mistook the Titanic for a smaller boat without a radio.

(5) The captain of the SS Californian tried to signal the ship with a morse lamp, but the abnormally stratified air distorted and disrupted the signals. Neither the SS Californian nor the Titanic could communicate properly, neither noticing the signals to each other.

(6) Finally, the distress rockets sent up were again modified by the superior mirage and distorted horizon, and the crew of the SS Californian did not realize they were being sent by the Titanic and ignored any signals. To me, this is one of the few points that seems suspicious – despite the fact that the rocket signals may have been distorted, it is surprising that the SS Californian wouldn’t come to the aid of what they believed was a smaller vessel.

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These infographics made by Charles Floyd depict these optical phenomenons, which may have caused the ship to hit the iceberg and also ruined any chance of rescue for those passengers without lifeboats.

In addition to this research on the unusual optics that may have sunk the Titanic, very recent research from this year suggests that a fire in the hull, perhaps one that occurred before the Titanic even set sail, could have weakened the steel, reducing the strength of the ships hull, making it much more susceptible to the iceberg’s impact. You can read more about this new theory and the BBC documentary about it HERE.

Based on all of this new information, and all the information we already knew (not enough lifeboats, going to fast, issues with the design of the ship), the RMS Titanic really was ready for a disaster to take place. So, the real question is – since I will be sailing on a ship in April, likely above the very spot where the Titanic now resides, should I be nervous in 2017?

First, a paper by Bigg and Wilton (2014) analyzed if iceberg risk in the year Titanic sunk was “exceptional”. They also modelled the likely transit of Titanic’s iceberg and its likely origin (southwestern Greenland) based on its size and the typical trajectory of icebergs that arrive along the southwest coast of Newfoundland. Bigg & Wilton (2014) found that while the number of icebergs observed that season was indeed high, it was not actually “exceptional”. There was however a bump in April (when Titanic sank), compared to the peak that usually occurs in May. They also note that while the risk of an unexpected iceberg encounter in the North Atlantic is mostly gone, a few ships in the past few years have struck icebergs, with most only causing some damage (MV Explorer in 2007, MS Fram in 2008), but a Russian fishing vessel did sink in 2011. And they note that as ice sheets continue to break apart due to warming temperatures, the presence of more icebergs will only continue. So not great news for me – the presence of icebergs has not really changed in 105 years and they can be just as dangerous when they cannot be avoided.

First, one good thing came out of Titanic’s demise – the creation of SOLAS, or Safety of Life at Sea, creating safety conventions and standards for mariners. This means that there are now ice patrols, where planes use radar and/or eyesight to spot icebergs and alert ship traffic. Outside of the monitored range by air traffic, ships have their own radar and equipment to detect icebergs. They also have the ability to communicate with other ships. However equipment can fail, and weather conditions can impact the ability for a ship to spot incoming danger. But, even if a ship is in danger, rescue services are far beyond what the passengers of the Titanic experienced in 1912. Whether it’s the sufficient lifeboats and lifejackets a ship is required to have, rescue from sea, or rescue from air, even in the middle of the Atlantic, help is far easier to come by.

So, will we spot icebergs on my journey across the Atlantic? Definitely. Will one hit the ship? Well, hopefully not, and most likely not, but the days of a disaster like the sinking of the Titanic are thankfully over and the most likely thing I will be dealing with is a whole lot of seasickness.



Bigg, G. R. and Wilton, D. J. (2014), Iceberg risk in the Titanic year of 1912: was it exceptional?. Weather, 69: 100–104. doi:10.1002/wea.2238





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