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March-April 2012

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Retrospect: April 15, 1912: Sinking of Titanic

Caption: U.S. Weather Bureau Synoptic Weather Map for 1300 GMT (8:00 a.m. EST time, 9:37 a.m. ship's time). The RMS Titanic had entered an area of Arctic high pressure over the North Atlantic at the time of the collision, about 10 hours earlier, with relatively calm winds and clear skies. The area of high pressure lay behind a cold front, with temperatures generally in the 30s between 40 and 45 degrees north latitude.

It was called “practically unsinkable.” At just over 882 feet long and weighing more than 46 tons, the aptly named RMS Titanic was the pride of Britain's White Star Line. As the largest passenger ship in the world at the time, Titanic offered those who could afford it—in first class, at least—luxury travel of unparalleled opulence in an age known as La Belle Époque, or the Beautiful Era.

In the end, all the grandeur and technology of the time were no match for the brutal forces of nature. Before completing its maiden voyage, from Southampton, England, to New York, Titanic succumbed to one of the dangers of sailing in the northern stretches of ocean during the winter and spring—what novelist Jules Verne referred to as the “strange, preternatural, impossible contest between men and icebergs.”

Just before midnight (ship's time, one hour and 37 minutes ahead of New York time) on Sunday, April 14, 1912, Titanic struck one of the nearly 1,000 icebergs reported to inhabit the frigid waters of the North Atlantic at the time. In less than three hours, it would be completely underwater, on its way to the bottom of the Atlantic, some 375 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

During its entire voyage up until the point it sank, Titanic experienced weather that “was clear, with the single exception of 10 minutes of fog,” according to the final report of the U.S. Senate hearings into the disaster. The report described the sea as being “calm throughout the voyage, with sunshine the whole of each day and bright starlight every night. No untoward incident marred the trip. Greetings were frequently exchanged with passing vessels by appropriate signals.”

By April 13, the third day of its voyage, Titanic began receiving ice warnings via wireless communications from other ships in the area. The following message, received on the day of the accident from the steamer Baltic, also of the White Star line, describes both the prevailing weather conditions and ice threat at the time:

STEAMSHIP “BALTIC,”

April 14, 1912.

Capt. SMITH, Titanic:

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. Last night we spoke German oil tank Deutschland, Stettin to Philadelphia, not under control; short of coal; latitude 40.42 north, longitude 55.11. Wishes to be reported to New York and other steamers. Wish you and Titanic all success.

COMMANDER.

Conditions in the hours leading up to the collision and sinking of Titanic are described in the final report of the British inquiry, based on testimony by Second Officer Charles Lightoller:

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. 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.

The testimony of crew member John Poingdestre further illustrates both the calm and cold that prevailed that night:

Q: What sort of weather was it?

A: Grand weather.

Q: What do you say?

A: Fine weather.

Q: Was it cold?

A: Rather cold.

Q: You call it “rather cold”?

A: Yes, rather cold.

Q: You had come on duty at eight?

A: Yes.

Q: Did the coldness continue, or did it get worse?

A: It got worse.

Q: And at the time of the accident how would you describe the weather, was it cold or very cold? A: Terribly cold.

Q: And did you appreciate that it was getting colder and colder as you got along?

A: Yes, Sir.

Q: That is with regard to the temperature. With regard to the clearness of the atmosphere, how would you describe it?

A: Well, on the evening that the accident occurred it seemed to be fine weather.

Q: By “fine weather” do you mean a good clear night for seeing lights?

A: Yes.

Q: At the time of the accident was it fine weather then?

A: Yes, Sir.

Q: Weather in which, according to you, you could see ships' lights at full range, do you mean?

A: Yes.

Two-thirds of the passengers and crew aboard Titanic perished that night, due in large part to the lack of lifeboats and the inadequate procedures followed in deploying them. (For example, the first lifeboats were launched half-empty, for fear that they would break apart while being lowered into the water.) Even if filled to capacity, the 20 lifeboats aboard the Titanic would have only accommodated about half of the more than 2,200 passengers and crew. In the end, more than 1,500 people perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic that night.

The fate of those who would live hung precariously in the balance, with survival on one side and the elements on the other. One of the survivors, prominent New York writer, historian, and real estate investor Archibald Gracie IV, wrote a book detailing his experience on Titanic and during the hours after it sank, as he awaited rescue while clinging to an overturned lifeboat. “We all recognize the fact that our escape from a watery grave was due to the conditions of wind and weather,” he wrote. “All night long we prayed that the calm might last.”

A direct result of the Titanic disaster was the establishment of the International Ice Patrol, which monitors the presence and movement of icebergs in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It still operates today, under the auspices of the U.S. Coast Guard, helping to ensure that the icy waters of the North Atlantic stay safe a century after the demise of one of the greatest ships ever to sail them.

For more on the weather and ice conditions associated with the sinking of Titanic, see “Weather and the Titanic” in the April/May 1992 issue of Weatherwise and “Icebergs Ahead!” in the September/October 2007 issue of Weatherwise.

Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.


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