Titanic Anniversary: Unusual Climate + Extreme Ice Conditions = Tragic Accident

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guest Post by Dr. Tim Ball

April 14th is the anniversary of Titanic‘s collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The event occurred at 41° 46′ N and 50° 14′ W, almost the most southerly location on record (Figure 1). One can’t absolve the sailors from lack of vigilance because the accident happened, but it’s important to know their situation and expectations.

Chart showing known locations of ship collisions with icebergs

Red crosses mark collisions, but also outline “Iceberg Alley”. It’s where pieces of ice calve from the west coast of Greenland and drift south with the Labrador Current. Iceberg numbers and extent are determined by changing climate, which affects glacier dynamics, water and air temperatures, and ocean currents. Figure 2 shows the Labrador Current flowing to a confrontation with the North Atlantic Drift. When the Gulf Stream is off the New England coast, it’s driven east by the prevailing westerly winds. The boundary between the cold, dark, bottle-green waters of the Labrador Current and the light blue, almost turquoise of the warm tropical waters is a very sharp visible boundary. I saw it many times while chasing Soviet submarines around the North Atlantic. The diagram show the cold dense water deflecting the warmer water and affecting the trajectory toward western Europe.

Labrador Current and North Atlantic Drift

As far as is known using dead-reckoning navigation, Titanic was on course. Figure 2 shows the point of collision was at the southern limit of the Labrador Current. Icebergs melt as they move south and most are totally melted or very small at this latitude. Therefore it’s an area the crew wouldn’t expect icebergs, especially one large enough to sink them.

Why did such a large iceberg get that far south in 1912? Study of the weather patterns provide explanation. Media reports tell the story and are all summarized in this statement:

The 1912 United States cold wave (also called 1912 cold air outbreak) remains one of the coldest winters yet to occur over the northern United States.

January, 1912 was the coldest on record for Norfolk, NE, at -39°C and Pennsylvania State College weather station recorded -30°C on the night of January 11th. This was reinforced by a comment from a Canadian newspaper,

What made the winter of 1912 a record-breaker was not the absolute cold – 1934 was worse – but that it settled in quickly and stayed put.

So it was a prolonged cold spell, a point confirmed by another source.

It started in December 1911 and continued into late February 1912. February and March continued the unrelenting freeze. Both months were unusually cold, and March was the coldest on record for many states in the Midwest and Northeast. Parts of North Dakota saw their coldest March readings to date. Some cities saw their coldest weather that winter since the Little Ice Age. 1912 itself was a very cold year.

These conditions indicate a very deep prolonged outbreak of cold arctic air across central and eastern North America that became a “blocking” high pressure system. Persistence of the pattern resulted in severe weather or prolonged weather in other regions. All are characteristic of a Meridional Pattern of flow in the Circumpolar Vortex (Jet Stream) in Figure 3.

Rossby wave patterns

In England, the general weather pattern was notable because of cool wet conditions;

The almost complete absence of summer weather and the frequent rains at almost all seasons have rendered 1912 memorable. The bad weather was more noticeable by contrast with the magnificent weather of 1911.

London reported,

Dull and Wet. Mild Winter. Very Cool late Summer and Autumn.

More important,

March was a very changeable month as a series of Atlantic weather systems crossed the country.

In Regina, Saskatchewan, in central Canada the weather was equally significant.

Known as the Regina Cyclone, this storm has been rated an F4 on the Fujita Scale based on reported damage and historical photographs. To date, it is the deadliest tornadic storm in Canadian history, taking 28 lives and leaving more than 200 injured.

All this confirms that a very deep northerly flow of cold arctic air persisted over eastern North America. This would drive cold Labrador Current water further south carrying the icebergs with it. The cold air reduced above water ablation of the icebergs. Confluence of the cold arctic water and warm tropical water make the region south of Newfoundland the foggiest region in the world. Conditions in 1912 enhanced the fog forming potential that further hampered the lookouts. This was the final event in a sequence of weather conditions that resulted in a terrible maritime disaster.


The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titan...

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titanic; a smudge of red paint much like the Titanic's stripe was seen near the base. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Pull My Finger

Read an recent article that stated extremely high, record high, tides were recorded a few months before the Titanic sank which may have sent many icebergs adrift that normally would have been stranded aground on the Canadian coast.

Pull My Finger

… and the extreme cold and strong inversion in the area would have made spotting icebergs very, very difficult and would distort images near the horizon, possibly accounting for the poor response time to the sinking.

Scott Covert

Very entertaining article, Thanks.

Rick Morcom

Fascinating, thank you.


YAY! Somebody fixed the CSS!


Sorry if this is off topic but Dana1981 of Skeptical Science has an article up rebutting the NASA ex employee letter if anyone is interested:

Thanks Dr. Ball!

Bloke down the pub

Even in the modern era, plane crashes tend to be the result of a combination of failings, both human and mechanical. Perhaps that’s why disasters like this take on such a significance, it would have taken only a minor change in any one of a dozen factors to have avoided it.

Nice article thank you. Coincidentally my house overlooks the home of one of those who died on the Titanic

suissebob says:
April 12, 2012 at 10:32 am
Sorry if this is off topic but Dana1981 of Skeptical Science has an article up rebutting the NASA ex employee letter if anyone is interested:

That’s not a rebuttal — it’s a lame rehash of AGW claims from the ’90s mixed with a liberal sprinkling of bullshit — such as the statement “They include James Hansen, who created one of the earliest global climate models in the 1980s, which has turned out to be remarkably accurate.”
Dana1981 appears to be stuck in 1998…

Matthew Holbrook

This is a great post, further expanding our understanding of what happened to the Titanic. A few years ago, I had seen a documentary that pointed blame for the disaster in part to the shoddy steel from which the Titanic was constructed. It seems that the same steel was used to build the celebrated battlecruiser HMS Hood, which was obliterated by the Bismarck with one salvo in 1941, not very far north of where the Titanic sank.

I have a theory: If you make enough bad decisions, Speeding, at night, in the the largest manmade moving object ever made at the time, ignore warnings, make it out of substandard materials, with too small a rudder, poorly equiped lookouts, no safety drills, not enough lifeboats, limited shakedown cruise… something bad is going to happen , without regard to weather, climate, phase of the moon and sun, or most any other natural phenomenon


Multiple eyewitness reports indicate the night was very clear. If fog is to blame it must have been very localized around the iceberg. A more likely explanation is visual distortion in front of the ship due to the temperature differential between air over the Labrador current and the Gulf Stream waters — essentially a mirage that obscured the view of the lookouts.


Here is a good article from my local newspaper.
I liked this, (excerpt):
BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Here, where Titanic, the massive White Star Line luxury liner, was built — the joke for years has been, “It was fine when it left here.” ………..


On the UK National Geographic channel last night there was a programme called Titanic: Case Closed. Despite the title it presented what seemed to this layman like a plausible theory that the look outs (and the captain of the Californian) were deceived by cold water mirages where the major difference between the water temperature and air temperature caused optical illusions, especially near the horizon. On the face of it historian Tim Maltin did at least some of the right things by examining the archives, including the logs of ships passing through the same area at the time and talking to present day sailors who sail the same waters now.
It was certainly intriguing.
I am sure that the programme will be repeated endlessly on this channel and no doubt in other countries.


“January, 1912 was the coldest on record for Norfolk, NE, at -39°C and Pennsylvania State College weather station recorded -30°C on the night of January 11th. This was reinforced by a comment from a Canadian newspaper,”
“All are characteristic of a Meridional Pattern of flow in the Circumpolar Vortex ”
This means that Reykjavik must have been warmer than normal in January. If cold air goes so far south warm air must go north.
January 1912 with 1,9 ºC was indeed a mild month.
I love your interviews with Kim Greenhouse Too bad that the last time Kim was a bit hard on you. Maybe she had a headache.

John Blake

J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, could never bear to look at picures of that
red-tinctured iceberg. Prudent mariners hove-to ten miles away but Capt. Smith forged on, full-speed ahead. “It was sad, when that great ship went down.”

Highlights the commercial pressure on a Ship Master.
Maiden Voyage. Need to be in New York to get the blatts, and meet the schedule . . . .
Still happens today. This year I have had ‘full and frank discussions’ with a charterer who wanted to pressure a Master into berthing when the wind was [far] in excess of that permitted at that port. $200,000,000 ship, too – and, more importantly the lives at risk.
Titanic – as
Bloke down the pub says:
April 12, 2012 at 10:40 am
many things usually go wrong for an accident to happen.
DocWat says:
April 12, 2012 at 11:14 am
DocWat, too, has it right.
If a shipping line [or airline or railway [railroad] etc.] says it’s never late, they might just be cutting corners.

Paul Westhaver

Dr Ball.
FYI Halifax Harbour was filled with pack ice in April 1987.
Here is a facinating link with a slide show.
Here is is represented on a Children’s Program, Theodore Tugboat.
[ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hUqtCHFPG4 ]
I don’t know if the pack ice was arctic or from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
Thanks Dr Ball.

Ice Patrol is probably an interesting source of historical climate records.
This is a report of historical iceberb counts since 1900 estimated by IIC. (Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine the basis for the estimates?) since WWII, the counts are probably spot on. Before WWII, what are the uncertainty bands. Before Titanic, who knows? http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=IIPIcebergCounts
There are some annual reports on-line, which hint at by month iceberg counts by lat-long 1×1 degree bins. Wouldn’t that the interesting to visualize in 4D (lat,Long,year, Month) http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/pdf/iip/2011_IIP_Annual_Report.pdf

Tom J

I have a book at home (unfortunately I’m not at home right now) about the power plants of the great ocean crossing passenger steamers. The author stated that many of the captains underestimated the power at their disposal. He used the captain of the Titanic as one example, and stated it was simply reckless to order the great ship to steam full speed through a known iceberg field at night, and after iceberg sightings had been issued through radio contacts and before retiring for the evening. It also appears his 1st Officer may have panicked when he tried to maneuver around it. Since he had put the engines in full reverse the response of the rudder was diminished. He would’ve been far better off to have rammed it. Almost all passenger ships of that era had collision bulkheads.

Crispin in Johannesburg

@Matthew H
“I had seen a documentary that pointed blame for the disaster in part to the shoddy steel from which the Titanic was constructed.”
Wasn’t it the rivets that were made from slag that was the problem? They were ordinarily very strong but became brittle at 4 deg C. The ‘berg ripped open the side like a zipper flooding more than the maximum number of sealable compartments that had to be compromised to sink it. An original rivet was on someone’s desk for decades and analysis of it proved the theory.

Ben U.

On April 8, 2012, the NY Post published “Forgotten journal reveals how man survived 1912 disaster,” most of it consisting in an excerpt from survivor John B. Thayer III’s account which is going to be published. In the excerpt Thayer wrote as to earier in the evening:

It had become very much colder. It was a brilliant, starry night. There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds. A very light haze, hardly noticeable, hung low over the water. I have spent much time on the ocean, yet I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night; it was like a mill pond, and just as innocent looking, as the great ship quietly rippled through it.

T. Harnden

As reported on CBC the ship may have been traveling so fast because there was a coal fire in one of the holds and was attempting to get to port before the fire got out of control.


Crispin in Johannesburg says:
April 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm
Wasn’t it the rivets that were made from slag that was the problem? They were ordinarily very strong but became brittle at 4 deg C. The ‘berg ripped open the side like a zipper flooding more than the maximum number of sealable compartments that had to be compromised to sink it. An original rivet was on someone’s desk for decades and analysis of it proved the theory.
The rivet has yet to be designed, that can pierce an iceberg 🙂
Must have been quite a show of force, driving that steel eggshell at speed, and giving that “immovable” object a glancing blow.

The steel used to build the Titanic was high in sulfur. It was probably the best steel of the era, but it was not known that sulfur made the steel brittle like glass.
I have read that destroyers in the North Atlantic during WWII split and sank for the same reason. Only after that was it discovered that sulfur has the effect of embrittlement of steel.
As for the rivets, I wonder if they were made of wrought iron. WI is a mixture of iron and slag and is still used for railings, etc.

There is something wrong (still) with WordPress. I have written more than one comment, filled in my e-dress and name, then clicked Comment. One time my comment appeared as “to be approved”, and other times a new screen came up saying that I wasn’t the registered user of my own name. I put in my password, and that seemed to be the end of it, but my posting was not shown. Perhaps this and my previous posting will appear under “Climatetruthinitiative”, but I signed in under my own name.
Some day I will remember to copy my message before sending it.

I see that my second comment was published. Let’s see if I can send my original one again.
The steel used for the Titanic was probably the best available in that era. They just didn’t know that high sulfur content made the steel as brittle as glass at low temperatures.
I have read that one or more destroyers suddenly split and sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The problem was traced eventually to sulfur in the steel.
As for the battleship, the cold might have contributed, but I saw a TV documentary of naval practice of the day, and the Royal Navy took pride in its fast rate of fire. To achieve it, crewmen stood firing charges of cordite along the walls of the ship between the gun(s) and the elevator from the magazine. Had the crewmen (or their officers) followed intended procedure they would have waited for the next firing charge to be delivered from the bowels of the ship up to the gun position, which would have ensured that there was no “surplus” cordite kicking around, but it would also have slowed the firing rate of the guns.
A lucky hit by the German gun set off the “store” of cordite stacked near one gun and the explosion was enough to sink the ship.
In the documentary, divers went down to the sunken British ship and they found stores of cordite stacked near a gun.


Never understood why the SS Californian which was in visible distance of the Titanic did not see the distress flares or as some say ignored then as a firework display.
All the films show the Titanic in an isolated sea but she was in fact on a major shipping route surrounded by other vessels and in this case bergs.


Confluence of the cold arctic water and warm tropical water make the region south of Newfoundland…The boundary between the cold, dark, bottle-green waters of the Labrador Current and the light blue, almost turquoise of the warm tropical waters is a very sharp visible boundary.
Unfortunately, the provided graphic uses bottle-green for the warm tropic water of the Gulf Stream and blue to light blue for the Labrador Current. The inconsistency made for a bit of confusion. But thanks for a very interesting post, Dr. Ball.

Chris Nelli

I can still remember the smell of the fresh paint.

Baltimore Net Radio to Commemorate RMS Titanic 100th Anniversary …
Join us as we commemorate the RMS Titanic’s 100th Anniversary. Tune in for two 1-hour programs on Saturday, April 14, 2012 and Sunday, April 15th, 2012, …

Tim Minchin

It was night time so unless they had massive spotlights I doubt they would have seen it anyway – what phase was the moon in?


Thanks for this interesting post. The Titanic story seems to have a similar fascination as the Jack the Ripper story – people are still arguing about it more than a century later!
All catastrophes involving human systems are the result of a confluence of often small errors, which we get away with most of the time, but occasionally they come together and something very bad happens. The Challenger disaster is a good example of this.
Given what recently happened with the cruise ship off Italy, it is clear that the possibility of a large scale maritime disaster is still with us. And, if an unstable cruise ship with 4,000 people on board hit an iceberg tonight in the same circumstances as the Titanic did, I shudder to think of the consequences, improved technology and sufficient lifeboats notwithstanding.

Jacob Echeverria

See Titanic Boston in memory of John Harper (you yube)

Mike from Canmore

Tim: Did you see the article in today’s Vancouver Sun? Of course, it will only get worse with AGW!!!


The Titanic, was not designed to bounce off stationary objects when running at full speed.

Neil Jordan

Re the loss of the HMS Hood in:
Matthew Holbrook says:
April 12, 2012 at 11:06 am
climatetruthinitiative says:
April 12, 2012 at 3:19 pm
Excerpt from the 1946 US Navy “A Brief Sketch of the Career of the Heavy-Cruiser PRINZ EUGEN” based on translation of the ship’s log:
“Her active career began in a reverse manner when she was slightly damaged by the explosion of a mine in the Baltic. Necessary repairs delayed her sailing from Gotenhafen, until 17 May 1941, for the Atlantic in company with the battleship BISMARCK. The two fighting ships directed their course around the northern part of Iceland. At a point mid-way between Iceland and Greenland they encountered HMS HOOD, PRINCE OF WALES, NORFOLK, and SUFFOLK. The engagement was one of long range. The PRINZ EUGEN placed a direct shot on the HOOD, blowing up her magazines and thus sinking her, in one of the major losses of the British sea forces.”
The ship’s log and other materials were obtained as part of the Prinz Eugen being turned over to the US Navy as prize ship IX 300. The Prinz Eugen ended as one of the target ships in Operation Crossroads, details of which are on line.


I am a big fan of Dr. Ball, and proud as a Canadian to see his courage in confronting the AGW juggernaut. His insights into weather patterns in 1912 and their likely effect on iceberg movement into the main shipping lanes seem very plausible.
But in no way contradicting his insights, I’ve just recently come across a very persuasive and somewhat disturbing English documentary from 2011 purporting to ‘prove’ that in point of fact it was NOT the Titanic that sank that tragic and fatefull night, but rather her sister ship, the Olympic.
And further, that the sinking was an elaborate insurance scam ultimately perpetrated by JP Morgan, gone awry. To wit, that the Olympic, damaged beyond economic repair by a series of previous accidents and uninsurable, was simply patched together in Belfast Docks and surreptitiously ‘re-named’, and sent to her fate by the company owners.
The Californian, in this quite plausible hypothesis, was to be the rescue ship, and had most curiously sailed empty from England save for a large cargo of blankets, basically, and was waiting (unfortunately some 12 nautical miles off of the ‘prearranged rendevous point’) for what was expected to be an orderly transfer of passengers with no loss of life. However at that distance, the Titanic was just over the horizon, and a illegal sealing vessel (name is in the doc.) was also stationary in the water, nearly in line with the sinking ‘Titanic’/Olympia, setting off only white masthead-high flares to guide her sealing dories, rather than the expected coloured blue and red distress flares that the Californian’s Captain was awaiting, which would have sent the Californian steaming to the site of the accident, likely in time to save most if not all souls.
Quite impressive and detailed evidence claims and analysis in the documentary, including very questionable and suspicious testimony from the subsequent inquiry. It’s long, but for those with little patience for this now-cultish tragedy (after all, not the biggest sea disaster of the era), if I might suggest, the ultimate proof of the hypothesis may come down to the veracity, or lack thereof, of a few moments of footage shown towards the end of the film, as the capstone “proof” of the crime; – purportedly taken by the deep submersibles diving on the wreck, where it appears a number of rivited plates (very odd if true! – see just below) bearing the letters of the name “Titanic” have fallen off the bow, revealing the ENGRAVED letters “M” and “P” (engraving the name in the steel being the standard method of the day for large liners – not riveted name-plates).
Definitely entertaining, in any case, and given what I’ve seen out of the IPCC in terms of ‘global-scale scams’, all too believable.
YouTube, in 5 segments: – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmVPS3l7llI&feature=related
“Why They Sank The Titanic HD”


oh dang – lost a 40 line post. ok, short version. Apparently, it may not have been the Titanic that sank, but her sister ship, the Olympic, in an elaborate insurance scam perpetrated by JP Morgan, gone awry. See English documentary 2011 “Why They Sank The Titanic”, in 5 parts, YouTube

In no way detracting from Dr. Ball’s excellent analysis, just another layer of the mystery.


Tiburon says:
April 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm
Got to the 13 minute mark in your video.
You just don’t get it, do you.
Everybody is watching every move, you have nowhere to hide.

Kelvin Vaughan

The temperature in Central England that day was 13.2°C. Today it’s forcast to be 12°C. That’s global warming for you!


The Titanic was run at full speed, at night, through an area known to contain icebergs. Her lookouts had had their binoculars taken from them. The man on the bridge did the worst possible thing when the iceberg was reported, maximizing the damage from the collision. Still she floated for five hours after the collision, giving ample time to evacuate everybody. I call that a SAFE ship.
The large number of deaths was due to bureaucratic inertia in Great Britain, failing to update the number of lifeboats required as ships grew larger (Titanic actually had MORE lifeboats than required by regulations),. And also to the remarkable incompetence of the ships’ officers who couldn’t even manage to fill the lifeboats she had to capacity.

Patrick Davis

Not sure if it has been posted but there were a couple of things most people don’t know about that contrbuted to the disaster.
1. The Captain.
2. The design. The rudder was too small for a ship that size and power. Looks of the ship, rather than safety, were prime objectives, resulting in the fact there were too few lifeboats for passengers (Well 2nd and 3rd class passengers really didn’t matter that much then).
3. The rivets used to “knit” the steel plates together were of a poor quality, especially when subjected to harsh cold environments making them brittle.
4. The builders were more interested in saving as much money as possible leading to points 2 and 3.


Fascinating article Dr Ball – hang in there.
I watched a documentary on the sinking in Nat Geo last night.
James Cameron had gathered a team of experts to analyse the data and reconstruct as far as possible the events after the iceberg was struck.
I decided to overlook his obvious failings in other areas, as he is in a unique position to receive funding and staffing for a project like this, and in fairness he does seem pretty informed on the subject.
The show was great up to the point it ‘hit an iceberg’ at the end. He spent the end of the show explaining how ‘climate change’ is so like the Titanic incident.
I won’t bore/anger you with the details. Suffice to say it was enough to tarnish the whole production for me.

An interesting confluence of two of my interests… So it wasn’t so much God Moving Upon the Waters as Cold Air Moving the Colder Waters…
I offer you http://youtu.be/mGdQbGH6V_c as light relief!

I read a book as a child about the sinking, “A Night to Remember”. Eyewitnesses recounting the sinking said, at the end, the stern lifted straight up, like a “finger”. Then she slid headlong into the abyss.This contradicts the evidence found at the bottom which suggested the stern broke off as it rose up. I think the stern broke away on the way down.
Also in this book, is a passenger manifest. Listing the pasengers by class the; deceased are in italics. One third class death was a gent with my name. Spooky thing for me as a 13 year old.
God rest them all.
In the 1950’s my Dad was a crewman on US Navy aircraft that flew very long missions out of Labrador over the North Atlantic. They were tracking and plotting and naming icebergs . This info was collected and disseminated to avoid another “Titanic”
Thanks DR Ball.
(I don’t need no stinkin’ spell check)


NASA has ann interesting visualization of the currents and how they flow over time here. It starts out showing the area we are interested in for this story. This time frame though starts in 2005. Still intereting to look at. If you have th bandwidth grab the movie.

Bill Parsons

Interesting how few iceberg “hits” (indicated by the chart above), resulted in actual deaths (discounting the “unknowns”). The low mortality rate from collisions since a tragic mid-19th century passenger sinking, must have led to considerable overconfidence.
Wall Street Journal’s editorial on the Titanic today bore out this point in a discussion of “whose fault?”
Over the century since Titanic sank, many have discussed the significance of the failure to provide enough lifeboats. Every filmmaker has had his own view on the subject: this was emblematic of the failure of capitalism (shipbuilders too cheap to spring for the needed boats); others have adopted the James Cameron version of the story, which was that designers considered the extra craft to be an unnecessary “clutter” of the liner’s decks, lending it an “unaesthetic” appearance. Wall Street’s Berg points out that the failure (and implicitly other Titanic failures) were certainly due to the British government, which had assumed / insisted on the responsibility to regulate lifeboat safety, but failed to carry out the necessary monitoring and enforcement. Why? Because typically governments find it far too easy to make new laws; whereas, enforcing them, they find to be too time consuming, costly, and tedious; and ultimately even this task became “somebody elses’ job”

Steve O

A Wall Street Journal editorial had an interesting perspective. Contrary to popular opinion, the number of lifeboats was not restricted based on an economic decision to save money. As often happens under regulation, company executives stopped managing according to their own risk-management judgment in favor of managing according to regulatory compliance.
Governments like to issue regulations, but they find it “tedious to maintain them.” So, you have company executives substituting the government’s judgement in place of its own, and the government just not paying enough attention.
A total of 16 lifeboats were required, and the Titanic had 20. A proposal was made to have 48, but the company wanted to see what any updated regulations would require. But even those 20 would have been sufficient if the first ship on the scene hadn’t continued on its way, ignoring the distress signals.