The Climate Science Behind The Sinking Of The Titanic


Climate Change News

Climate Change News
Published on Apr 14, 2018
The Climate Science Behind The Sinking Of The Titanic.

The tragedy of the “unsinkable” Titanic, lost in the cold water of the Atlantic, became part of history and pop-culture. Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the Titanic collided with an iceberg. Six of the waterproof compartments of the ship were damaged and just two hours later the ship sank, with still 1,500 passengers on board. However, the story of the iceberg causing the disaster is mostly forgotten. One famous photograph was taken from the Minia, one of the first ships to search the area for debris and bodies, shows a tabular iceberg, an unusual form of icebergs in the northern Atlantic. The crew found debris and bodies floating in the vicinity and the captain assured that this was the only iceberg to be spotted. However, most surviving Titanic passengers described later the infamous iceberg having a prominent peak or even two. In the morning of April 15, and still days later, many other icebergs were photographed by passengers from bypassing ships. A supposed authentic photography of the iceberg that sank the Titanic was worth a lot of money for the eager press.

Despite the question, if one of the many published photos shows really the one iceberg, the records suggest that in 1912 a number of icebergs reached latitude 48 degrees north, crossing the path of the Titanic.

The icebergs encountered in the North Atlantic originate from the western coast of Greenland, where glaciers deliver large quantities of ice into the fjords. Every year tens of thousands of chunks of ice drop from the front of the calving glaciers into the sea. The wind then pushes the icebergs away from the coast into the West Greenland Current. This marine current transports the ice slowly north, far away from ship routes. However, following the coast of Greenland, this current is diverted along the Canadian coast to the south, forming the Labrador Current.
This current, here also known as iceberg alley, circumnavigates Newfoundland and transports the iceberg to the Gulf Stream. The warm Gulf Stream melts quickly larger icebergs, breaking apart they will form swarms of smaller, yet still dangerous, chunks of ice. A more than 3,100 miles long journey full of obstacles and incessant erosion by the sun, water, and waves. After three or maybe ten years only one or two from hundreds of icebergs will reach latitude 45 degrees north, crossing the most important corridor for ships in the Atlantic Ocean.

Historic records of the sea-surface-temperature (SST) suggest that may a series of warm years in the Arctic is to blame for the swarm of icebergs crossing the shipping routes in 1912. The high temperatures increased the melting rate of the glaciers in Greenland. The meltwater acts as a lubricant at the base of the glacier, the ice slips quicker into the sea and more icebergs can form. Even if most icebergs don’t survive the long journey south, as more are produced by the calving glaciers along Greenland’s coast, still more icebergs will float into the northern Atlantic.

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