“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.”
-Captain Smith, Commander of Titanic
Like many people, I’m fascinated with the Titanic. I knew a lot about it long before James Cameron’s record-breaking film came out, and have continued to study its lore ever since. I’ve attended two exhibits, have visited cemeteries in Halifax where victims are buried, and have collected pieces of coal retrieved from the ocean floor where the ship remains. I also have a gorgeous and very detailed model of it in my home office signed by Millvina Dean, the last survivor from the unsinkable ship—she was a nine-week old passenger at the time—and who died in 2009 at the age of 97.
I find myself thinking a lot about the great ship as the 100th anniversary of the tragedy approaches. Indeed, the day I’m posting this blog is the anniversary of the day the ship set sail on her maiden voyage, leaving Southampton before heading to Cherbourg, France and then Queenstown in Ireland for some last passengers to be picked up, and then finally off to New York City.
Such a human tragedy can’t help but make people think about so many things, and on so many different levels: class differences in society, the lack of enough lifeboats, and the misplaced belief that anything manmade can be infallible. But one interesting aspect of the entire event was the cause of the tragedy. In fact, a number of factors contributed together to lead to the fateful event. A moonless night made the visibility of icebergs poor, and a quiet night for weather—the sea was “like a mill pond” as Captain Edward Smith described it—prevented any wake around icebergs which could be more easily spotted. Both of these played a part in the unfortunate collision.
Fans of Titanic history tend to know those factors I describe above, but few people are aware that there’s another factor with respect to weather that contributed: the winter of 1911-1912 was unusually cold. The very frosty winter that year allowed northern Atlantic icebergs to last much longer into the spring and travel much farther south before melting than usual. A cold spell through much of the US and Canada between December 2011 and February 2012, therefore, played a key part in creating the circumstances which led to the famous accident. It turns out it was one of the coldest winters on record.
I only raise this point, as we look back this week on a such a significant chapter of our humanity’s history, because it makes me realize how much things have changed in a century. Navigation equipment with GPS tracking as well as instantaneous communications all over the planet have made a substantial difference to sea travel—although the recent mishap with the Costa Concordia proves that disasters at sea are still not foolproof.
But I realize another aspect of our civilization’s progress makes a similar tragedy less likely today: our planet’s climate change with constant record-breaking temperatures minimizes the chance of icebergs remaining large enough at this time of year on the Titanic’s travel route to cause such damage. A cruise ship leaving Southamptom on April 10, 2012 and then heading to New York City would have a tough time hitting such a large iceberg as far south as 41° 46′ N and 50° 14′ W. (It will be interesting to see if any of the various Titanic memorial cruises that passengers are currently aboard will see any icebergs that would be comparable in size to the one that led to 1514 people losing their lives on April 14, 1912; in other words, less than a third of those on board the original Titianic surviving the disaster.
It’s an interesting perspective on this important anniversary: that were the climate of today present back then, it’s quite likely that this fascinating part of our world’s history might never have happened.