Saturday, April 14, 2012

100 years ago tonight.. Titanic sinks on a clear cold night in the North Atlantic

It happened a long time ago a long way from Manitoba, but on the 100th anniversary of the most famous maritime disaster in history, I thought I'd post some information about the weather the night the mighty Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the cold calm waters of the North Atlantic 100 years ago tonight April 14-15, 1912. It's a compelling story that has captivated mankind for a century, and continues to do so.


So what was the weather like on that fateful night? Well, in a word.. cold. A large area of high pressure had moved into the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland that evening, bringing clear, cold and calm conditions the night of April 14th. (see weather map left showing high pressure area almost directly over the site of the Titanic sinking) 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 Titanic, speeding westward at a brisk 22 knots towards New York City, had been warned by several ships that day about large quantities of ice that lay ahead in Titanic's path. Captain Edward J. Smith, on his last voyage before retirement, altered course slightly southward to avoid the ice field.. but maintained a steady speed of 22 knots.. a puzzling decision on a dark moonless night in ice laden waters (perhaps overconfidence that lookouts could easily spot icebergs on a such a clear night?) The decision not to slow down proved fatal.. as the lookouts did not spot the iceberg in time for the speedy Titanic to avoid a collision at 11:40 pm April 14th 1912. Within 3 hours, the doomed ship had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, taking 1500 lives with her. The clear moonless night, together with a flat calm sea that prevented waves from breaking at the base of the iceberg (which would have made it easier to spot the ice a further distance away) gave Titanic's lookouts minimal time to spot a looming iceberg ahead. Had there been a moon that night, or a wind that would have created some waves to make the ice easier to spot ahead of time, the lookouts may have had more time to warn the Titanic's officers about the ice ahead, providing a greater chance to avoid a collision. But it wasn't meant to be.. all the factors came together that night, including the weather, to lead to the most famous and dramatic maritime disaster in modern history. (For more information on the conditions that fateful night 100 years ago, see the current Weatherwise article "Retrospect: Sinking of Titanic")

11 comments:

  1. A bit of weather trivia on today's 100th anniversary of Titanic's final day at sea!

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  2. Thanks for the type up Rob!

    Any details later, on our weather. More rain? Wind potential tomorrow?

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  3. Will have a post on our outlook later this morning.. quite the storm shaping up south of the border, with heavy precip possible over the Dakotas clipping SE MB mainly SE of YWG.. maybe even mixing with or changing to snow Sunday evening!

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  4. oh and that HIGH risk of severe storms south of the border!

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  5. That'll definitely be interesting to watch. I'll be watching KOCO's (OKC TV station) live chat and see how the situation unfolds in the south end of the high risk area.

    That would most certainly be a nightmare for us if the SPC issued even a moderate risk going up past the border.

    The RUC runs have been showing the maximum value it can display for several runs, so grab the popcorn.

    Stay safe if you happen to be reading this blog in the moderate/high risk area!

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  6. Here we go! The SPC put out a MD saying a watch in the OK panhandle is likely.

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  7. Storms starting to fire up in the Dodge City area and Nebraska. None of them warned yet though.

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  8. PDS watch going out for Kansas and northern Oklahoma.

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  9. Rob,

    Do you know what the water temperature would have been at the time of the sinking? Several sources indicate -2 C (28 F) but I am skeptical of this because this is April after all...and the water temperatures wouldn't change as fast as air temperatures would after the passage of the cold front. I would imagine the Atlantic at that latitude wouldn't get colder than -2 C, and the minima should occur in February or March. Or maybe I'm totally wrong.

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  10. Andy.. The water temperature in the area of the sinking was indeed -1C to -2C that night, as measured by several ships in the area. The water was that cold thanks to the ice-laden Labrador current flowing southward past Newfoundland into the North Atlantic shipping lanes. The sub-freezing water was a result of this cold ocean current, not the cold air behind the front.

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  11. Awesome, thanks Rob.

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