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March-April 2013

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Titanic's Mirage: A New Perspective on One of History's Greatest Mysteries

Over a century after the RMS Titanic plunged into the depths of the cold north Atlantic on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, historians, researchers, and those simply fascinated by the tragedy continue to debate numerous aspects of the story. We know without a doubt that the ship—the largest in the world at the time—struck an iceberg that caused the breach of five of its 16 watertight compartments. And we know that due to that breach, more than two-thirds of the ship's 2,200 passengers and crew—roughly 1,500 lives—perished after the Titanic disappeared beneath the dark waters two hours and 40 minutes later. Some of the doomed met their fate trapped inside the Titanic as it tumbled thousands of feet toward the ocean's floor, while the remainder succumbed to hypothermia as they struggled to cling to life in the surrounding 32°F (0°C) water. And we also know that many of those who perished, perhaps all of them, died unnecessarily because there was at least one nearby ship whose crew didn't know of the Titanic's peril. What history doesn't know is why.

Specifically, why did such highly skilled lookouts not see the iceberg earlier, which would have allowed enough time to steer the Titanic away from the threat? And why, despite being in close proximity to the Titanic, did the SS Californian, a ship also bound for North America, not immediately heed the stricken vessel's call for help, which arguably could have saved all on board? Theories have focused on everything from incompetence of the lookouts to arrogance, bravado, and purported drunkenness of the Titanic's captain, to negligence on the part of the White Star Line—the owner of the Titanic—for not having fitted the ship with enough lifeboats, to the crew of the SS Californian, among a broad host of premises. Until recently, however, few have taken a very close look at the atmospheric conditions through which the Titanic steamed that fateful night. And those conditions, upon detailed inspection, reveal an entirely new understanding of the disaster.

The Titanic, which embarked at noon on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, from Southampton, England, bound for New York, experienced fine weather on its route. On the fourth day of travel, an unusually powerful dome of high pressure (1,039 mb) kept the skies lucid, fogless, windless, and bitterly cold, and the seas glass-like. Despite the intense high pressure and otherwise crystal-clear conditions, however, the crew noted a strange “haze” all around them on the horizon. Although this haze appeared along the horizon at every point of the compass, the ship never actually reached it, and the night proved one of the clearest any of the Titanic's passengers and crew had ever experienced. Both passengers and crew remarked that they could see stars setting right down to the horizon, as well as reflected off the peculiarly flat water in the moonless night. Earlier that day, one of the many ships plying the waters of the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, sent a message to the Titanic's captain, Edward John Smith, warning of massive fields of icebergs directly in line with the Titanic's course. History would reveal that more icebergs speckled the North Atlantic during the ship's voyage, particularly in the waters off the coast of Newfoundland, than during any time over the course of the previous 50 years. This spike was attributed by some to a warm winter, and recent research revealed a record high tide in January 1912 that refloated icebergs grounded along the coast of Labrador, dispatching them en masse as a tremendous armada into North Atlantic shipping lanes.

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 MS Titanic had entered an area of Arctic high pressure over the North Atlantic at the time of the collision, about 10 hours ealier, 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.

On the afternoon of April 14, 1912, the crew of the SS Californian, a British steamship bound for Boston, Massachusetts, spotted three large icebergs just north of the Titanic's intended route and radioed this information to the Titanic. The Titanic's captain kept the ship moving full speed ahead, at a rate of 24 mph (which was standard practice, as the Titanic turned efficiently at high speeds, and icebergs could easily be spotted in clear weather in time to avoid them). Soon thereafter, at about 10:30 p.m., the Captain of the Californian noticed an increased brightening along the western horizon. The Californian's captain immediately ordered the ship's engines full-astern, but it was too late, and the Californian plowed into loose ice at the edge of an enormous icefield. However, the ship survived undamaged. The Californian's crew radioed the Titanic to tell the ship's crew about the icefield and decided that they would stop for the night because the Californian's captain could not find a suitable route though the icefield in the dark. The Titanic's radio operator, in the middle of receiving a transmission during the ship's first radio contact with land in days, asked the Californian to immediately cease contact. (The Californian's transmission was not prefixed as a navigational message and was piercingly loud due to the close proximity of the two ships; this noise drowned out the faint message the Titanic's radio operator was trying to receive and transcribe.)

Officers on the Californian then spotted a ship steaming past them—one they judged to be 450 feet in length and roughly five miles distant, traveling at about 10 knots. (It did not appear to be the nearly 900-foot Titanic, which in reality was about 10 miles distant and traveling at twice that speed!) Because Californian knew that the Titanic was the only ship in the area with a radio, and because the nearby stranger looked nothing like the largest ship in the world, they naturally concluded that the ship they were looking at did not have a radio. Instead, the Californian attempted to contact the ship with a Morse lamp, but they received no signal in return.

Minutes later, the Titanic's lookouts spotted a massive iceberg emerging before them out of the haze, directly in line with the ship's swift trajectory. They sent an alert to the bridge, and while their sighting and immediate warning allowed the ship to turn and miss the chunk of the iceberg above the water's surface, the Titanic's hull scraped along the iceberg's submerged portion, opening seams in the ship's plates along nearly 300 feet of its starboard side below the waterline. This marked the beginning of the two hour and 40 minute demise of the immense vessel.

The Titanic then attempted to contact the Californian by radio to send a distress signal, but the Californian had only one radio operator, and he'd just retired for the night after a 16-hour shift. The Titanic's crew then attempted to signal the Californian with a powerful electric Morse lamp, but the crew of the Californian was unable to decipher the series of flashing signals, as the carefully timed flashes arrived distorted and jumbled. In fact, all the lights of both ships appeared to be flickering strangely—as did the stars near the horizon that night. The Californian's crew attempted again to signal the nearby stranger. The Titanic's crew could see the light but were unable to decipher the distorted signal flashes—just as the Californian's crew could not read the signal flashes sent earlier by the Titanic. An officer on the Californian then spotted a flash above the mystery ship, which he first believed to be a shooting star, but then he saw a succession of other flashes. These were signal rockets, but they appeared very low. (According to the sworn testimony of Californian's second officer, the rockets only rose to about half the height of the Titanic's masthead light; in reality, the Titanic's signal rockets could ascend much higher, to an altitude of about 600 feet.) Soon, the mystery ship appeared, to the crew of the Californian, to sail into the distance. The stricken liner's salvation stood so close, yet the Titanic had been cast into stunning isolation—no longer an iconic marvel of that era's greatest engineering prowess, but a horrific deathtrap as it slowly tilted bow-first into the frigid waters.

Tim Maltin, fascinated since his early childhood by the Titanic and its tragic demise, has devoted his life to investigating the ship, the disaster, and its lore like few others ever have. The author and historian is one of the world's leading Titanic experts. Due to his ardent focus on the full spectrum of details about the disaster, Maltin developed a startling theory: that an extremely powerful form of an atmospheric optical phenomenon might have camouflaged the infamous iceberg from view until too late—as well as prohibited the Titanic and the Californian from being able to read one another's Morse signal lights. During Maltin's extensive research of testimonies by Titanic survivors for his first book, 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic … But Didn't!, Maltin began taking notice of what he felt were peculiar snippets of information related not to the behavior of the Titanic's crew, nor to the construction of the ship, but to the air and water through which the Titanic sailed that night. Notably, one survivor in a lifeboat remembered seeing a plume of smoke rising in a column from the Titanic, but then “flattening out at the top like a mushroom” a few hundred feet above the surface of the sea. In studying the detailed testimony of Titanic's crew, he found that the air temperature plummeted a full 18°F (10°C) between 7 and 9 o'clock that night, shortly before the collision.

Other interesting pieces of information he found included recollections of surviving passengers, who noted “strangely still air” and brilliantly flashing stars that night. He took particular interest in the accounts related to distorted perspective, such as the Titanic's rockets appearing low and the Titanic and Californian appearing to be only about five miles apart, when in reality they were nearly 10 miles apart. Also noteworthy was the strange haze on the horizon on an otherwise completely clear night. He then found testimony in a 1991 United Kingdom Government review of the SS Californian, which concluded, based on statements made by the ship's crew, that “super-refraction” may have been present the night of the tragedy. This was Maltin's eureka! moment. Could the low rockets, late detection of the iceberg, and the inability of the Titanic and Californian to read one another's Morse lamp signals all be the result of extreme atmospheric refraction? This led him to conduct the first detailed investigation into the atmospheric conditions at the Titanic's crash site, for which he analyzed hundreds of log books from ships on the Titanic's shipping lane in April 1912. (Ships during this time dutifully recorded air and sea temperatures every four hours.) From this dataset, he constructed the first-ever map—in three dimensions, no less—of the “thermal geography” at the Titanic's crash site. Maltin also noted that several ships in the area at that time recorded “mirage” and “great refraction on the horizon” in their log book remarks.

Because light only travels in a straight line in a true vacuum—which in theory exists only in the farthest reaches of deep space—we experience atmospheric refraction every day from the moment we open our eyes. Refraction means the “bending” of light rays, and atmospheric refraction occurs when light passes through a volume of air of varying density, which is usually due to varying temperature: warmer air is less dense, and colder air is more dense. Just about every given volume of air meets this description of density heterogeneity. The laws of refraction dictate that light rays bend, or refract, toward regions of greater density of air, and the greater the difference in density between adjacent layers of air, the greater the angle of change of a traversing light ray. So when we see an object in the distance, we're seeing it in slightly different positions according to the density profile of the air we're viewing it through. Furthermore, if we think of any given section of the atmosphere as a lens, the thicker that section, the greater the distortion of an object through the “refractive lens” will be. Additionally, any portion of the atmosphere does not simply act as a static, fixed lens, but as a dynamic, ever-changing, “polyfocal” lens. We look through a very thick refractive lens when we gaze toward the heavens at night and see stars twinkling. That twinkling is called scintillation, and is caused by the fluctuations in air density between us and the stars we see. As Maltin discovered in his research, surviving passengers noted that the scintillation was more brilliant that night than they'd ever seen before. The air around the Titanic that night, Maltin discovered, was heavily stratified, with multiple distinct layers of air in the thermal inversion, which caused the intense scintillation.

Super-heated ground causes one of the most commonly seen forms of mirages. Heat waves make distant objects appear jumbled—as if boiling—when viewed through these mirages due to a rapidly churning mixture of air densities. Another commonly seen iteration of refraction is the inferior mirage, where light rays bend upward due to cooler, denser air sitting atop warm air on the surface of the ground. Probably the most commonly seen example of an inferior mirage is the “puddle on the road” mirage, where a slice of the sky is refracted toward the viewer, apparently from the road ahead, creating an impression in the viewer's mind of a distant puddle of water. Mirages present those interested in learning more about them with some paradoxes. First, the word “mirage” derives from the French phrase se mirer, meaning “to be reflected; to see one's image in a mirror.” However, a mirage is not a reflection, but the effect of refraction. Second, the easy definition of an inferior mirage is this: “A mirage where an image appears below, or inferior to, the actual position of the object.”

Maltin didn't focus on inferior mirages or heat waves, however, but on a type of refraction seen and recognized far less frequently: the superior mirage. Sometimes called “cold water mirages,” as they are common in cold water regions, a superior mirage occurs when warmer, less dense air sits atop colder, denser air—a condition called a thermal inversion. An inversion is named as such because the normal temperature gradient, or environmental lapse rate—where air temperature decreases with increasing altitude—is “inverted”: warm atop cold, not the normal cold atop warm. One of Maltin's most important discoveries, made through his modeling of the thermal geography of the Titanic's crash site, was the presence of a strong thermal inversion in the area. When gazing toward an object through a superior mirage, that object will appear higher than, or superior to, its actual physical position (see page 26). As light rays bend downward, around the curvature of the earth, they have the effect of raising objects that normally would be hidden below the horizon—a phenomenon called “looming.” The inversion is also the reason why observers in the lifeboats that night saw the plume of smoke from the ship “flatten” when it reached a certain height.

Caption: This diagram portrays a hypothetical view (red line) from the SS Californian toward the horizon, with the RMS Titanic “below the horizon” relative to the Californian. This diagram portrays a view without the visual influence of any type of superior mirage. Geometry and scale are greatly exaggerated for illustration.

The superior mirage can also make a distant ship seem closer by “raising” the horizon beyond it, causing the viewer to believe the ship is well within the horizon, instead of on or below it. According to Maltin, this provided the answer to the question of why the crew of the Californian believed the “mystery ship” that they saw was only about 450 feet in length, five miles distant, and traveling at about 10 knots, instead of the largest ship in the world, 10 miles distant, and traveling more than 20 knots. As Maltin explains: “If you think an object is nearer than it really is, then this will also lead you to conclude that it is smaller than it really is.”

Maltin, who worked closely with astrophysics professor and atmospheric refraction and mirage expert Dr. Andrew T. Young to develop his theory, also points to extreme refraction as an answer to the question of why the crews of the Titanic and Californian could not decipher each other's Morse lamp signal attempts. According to Maltin, the air in the region of the collision that night was intensely stratified, with very cold layers near the surface of the water and warmer layers above. This stratification caused extreme scintillation, not just of the stars, but also of each ship's lights and Morse lamp signals. In his e-book on his theory, A Very Deceiving Night, Maltin provides lengthy testimony given by crewmembers of both ships, from which he concludes that scintillation caused the jumbled appearance of the Morse signal lights, rendering them indecipherable. Maltin furthermore provides the answer to why the rockets fired by the Titanic appeared very low. The Titanic's rockets, according to his theory, exploding in the normally refracting warm air several hundred feet above the cold sea surface, would have appeared at their normal height for their true distance of about 10 miles. But the Titanic, looming in the cold, dense air near the sea surface, appeared much higher than normal. As Maltin explains, “Titanic's rockets were not low, but the looming ship appeared higher and therefore nearer to her rockets, making them seem low.”

Caption: This diagram portrays a hypothetical view of the Titanic from the deck of the Californian through a pronounced superior mirage due to a strong temperature inversion. Due to the superior mirage and refraction of light rays (black lines), observers on the Californian will see (red lines) the Titanic as on the horizon.

This leaves perhaps the greatest question of all: How can Maltin's theory explain why the Titanic's lookouts—some of the best in the world at that time—did not detect the infamous iceberg until too late? Waldemar Lehn, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and an expert in atmospheric refraction and mirages, who has performed computer simulations on refraction and its effects, explains one possibility:

…a strong superior mirage can create “dead zones” in the field of view, in which objects are vertically compressed so strongly that they would escape perception. In one atmospheric simulation, an iceberg up to 20 meters high would be practically invisible at a distance of 9 to 10 km. A 10 meter berg would become apparent only at about 7 km. Thus the “cloaking” of an iceberg is a real possibility, until it gets relatively close.

Survivors reported that the iceberg that the Titanic struck stood 50 to 80 feet above the water, and one of the lookouts who spotted it, Reginald Robinson Lee, stated in testimony that when he first saw the iceberg, he only saw the top part of it, and that the lower portion was cloaked in the mysterious “haze.” The iceberg that the Titanic struck was not alone that night, but was one of a tremendous number of icebergs in an icefield ahead it. A strong superior mirage would have loomed the distant sea surface. Maltin cites a historical account of Iceland and Greenland, where Vikings, who navigated the cold waters around these lands, noted that they at times encountered hafgerdingar or “sea hedges” surrounding them in all directions. Other, more modern, sources refer to these “hedges” as fog or haze, and attribute their effects to superior mirages, where the distant sea and ice is loomed above the normal apparent horizon, creating a new apparent higher horizon, known as a false horizon. The band between the normal horizon and the false apparent horizon above it is known as the miraging strip, or “duct.” This band always appears hazy, due to the scattering of light in the extraordinarily long air path visible in the duct. This phenomenon is known as a fata brumosa (“fairy fog”), and is often described as a haze or fog. Dr. Young explains: “The superior mirage is often associated with an appearance of ‘fog’ at the horizon, because one sees much farther than usual in the mirage strip below the false horizon.”

Maltin's theory explains that the haze the crew of the Titanic reported seeing surrounding them prior to the collision resulted from a loomed distant sea; it would have served to dramatically lower the contrast between any iceberg they approached and its background, effectively camouflaging it from view until it was too late.

But can we know for certain that the conditions were ideal for the formation of such extreme atmospheric refraction? As well as all the previously noted circumstantial evidence, the most powerful and persuasive argument came as a result of the first-of-its-kind compilation and analysis by Maltin of the atmospheric and oceanic conditions in the area just before, during, and after the disaster. The data were derived from studying thousands of logbook entries from a multitude of ships in the vicinity. According to Professor Lehn, “From what I know of Maltin's work, I certainly support his hypothesis that a superior mirage contributed to the disaster in several major ways—both in the collision itself as well as in the subsequent botched rescue efforts.”

What set the stage for such unusually intense atmospheric refraction in that part of the sea? Maltin points to recent research by Don Olson at Texas State University, published in Sky and Telescope Magazine, that states that in January 1912, the Earth was aligned with and closer to both the sun and moon than it had been for over 1,700 years. This phenomenon produced a record high tide that refloated a massive number of grounded icebergs along the coastline of Labrador. The Labrador current then carried these bergs southward, and they began to melt. This meltwater, with a temperature of 32°F (0°C), rode on top of the main current at the surface of the sea. The warm Gulf Stream current, which tracks eastward from the Grand Banks region toward Europe, had warmed the air above it to 50°F (10°C). The extreme high pressure in the area at that time prohibited the formation of fog and rendered the air dead calm, allowing for efficient and uniform warming. The mile-wide icy river of meltwater snaked much farther south than the Labrador current normally travels, displacing the warmer water of the Gulf Stream. With this cold water directly below the warm air, the air began cooling from the bottom up, and a powerful thermal inversion was born. This represented an amazing—yet ultimately disastrous—confluence of natural events.

History will never know “without a shadow of a doubt” exactly what specific events and conditions precipitated the Titanic disaster. But Maltin's theory provides an extraordinary explanation—one backed by a mass of both eyewitness accounts and raw meteorological data. The fateful night of April 14, 1912, revealed itself to be, as Captain Lord of the Californian proclaimed, “a very deceiving night” indeed.

This image shows two commercial cargo ships in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston, Texas: one (on the right) that is mostly above the horizon relative to the viewer (who is standing on a beach with a camera fitted with a telephoto lens), and another ship (on the left) that is almost completely “over the horizon” or “below the horizon” relative to the viewer. The proportion of an object above the horizon is a key visual reference from which a viewer may gauge relative (or depending on experience, somewhat absolute) horizontal distance between the viewer and the object. We know that the ship on the right is closer than the ship on the left because the ship on the left is almost below the horizon relative to the viewer, and the ship on the right has just a small sliver of its hull hidden by the horizon (assuming that both ships are roughly equal in height). This image demonstrates what we all know (or at least what us non-members of the Flat Earth Society know)—that the planet is a sphere (not quite a sphere, but very close to it), and we lose sight of ships at sea as they travel farther away. These views theoretically could, however, be augmented by a superior mirage, casting images of the ships higher relative to the horizon, and hence making them appear to an observer to be closer to them than in reality.

Below is a composite series of 10 incremental images of a view of the sun through a superior mirage as it sets on the Pacific Ocean horizon. The image was taken from a sea cliff roughly 100 feet above the crashing surf, near San Simeon, California. As the sun sets, the stationary viewer sees the effects of relatively strong atmospheric refraction through the “lens” of a superior mirage. As the view of the top of the disk of the sun closes on the horizon—relative to the viewer—the sun seems to become “notched,” or look like an anvil, and at certain moments, portions of it appear to “break apart” and “float” above itself. This view is fairly typical of the effects of a superior mirage, where the “lens” that is the mirage does not “move” an entire object to a higher apparent altitude, but augments visual echelons, or “slices,” of the view of the object, creating sometimes fantastical visages of the viewed form, including compressing, stretching, notching, and “breaking off” portions of the object. This graphically illustrates a vitally important point when considering Tim Maltin's theory, discussed on page 28: As humans, we typically isolate an individual subject (like a ship at sea) and consider it as insular and discrete relative to its surroundings. However, mirages act to augment the paths of light rays bouncing off (or originating from, in the case of signal lights or flares) everything in a particular field of view, not just specific objects in that field of view. So a ship within a field of view may not simply appear to hover at an elevation higher than it actually is, but be “chopped up” and visually rearranged, with horizontal “slices” of it appearing higher—much like the view of the sun in this series. Of course, the atmosphere, at all scales, is dynamic, and meteorological circumstances may well make it possible for a mirage to visually elevate a ship at sea—without distortion—to a viewer. Because the disaster happened at night, however, anyone looking toward either a distant iceberg or a distant ship may not have noticed the distortion, and either not recognized the subject as what it was, or perhaps simply noted its vague, yet faintly distinguishable, outline.

Titanic's “Unsinkable” Claim—

A Documented Boast or Retroactive Myth?

Invoking stabs of poignant irony, many have highlighted the purported claim by the White Star Line that the Titanic was “unsinkable.” But did White Star actually state that the Titanic was unsinkable, or as many have asserted, was this boastfulness simply a myth—one crafted for the sake of irony, maybe to add a twist of dramatic flair to the story, or perhaps as a measure of literary retribution? In the February-April 1993 article of The Titanic Commutator (the official journal of the Titanic Historical Society), authors Geoff Robinson and Don Lynch published the article “The ‘Unsinkable’ Titanic as Advertised.” In the article, they provided a photograph of a page in a White Star Line brochure that sang the praises of Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic. The boasts included the line: “… and as far as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable.”

Caption: The White Star Line brochure in which they used the word “unsinkable” to describe the Titanic.

ED DARACK is an independent writer and photographer. Visit his Web site at

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