Friday, April 13, 2012

How the “forces of Science”
contributed to Titanic’s sinking

The third in our six-part series, with an Earth Systems perspective 
on the disaster prepared by our multi-state Titanic 100 Team

Centenary resources from Europe to Canada & the US
Belfast | Southampton | Cape RaceHailfax | NOAA

A photograph believed to have been taken in mid-April 1912 from a 
ship passing through the area where Titanic had sank days earlier.

The weekend of April 13-15, 2012 marks the “Centenary” or 100th anniversary of the fateful Titanic crossing and the most well-known peacetime maritime disaster in history. New research has surfaced on a mosaic of climate factors, meteorological data and even astronomical mysteries going back over 1,000 years. Our investigations suggest the forces of nature had aligned in unusual ways to produce a difficult path long before  the "empress of the seas" ever set sail from Southampton. 

The May family was one of many torn apart by the loss of 
538 residents in Southampton, England, still affected today

The human element will forever remain the centerpiece of this tragedy, but there is no avoiding that science played a major role which impacted the lives of every person connected to the Titanic story, or that of any ship that has gone on to a watery grave. One example is discussed in our report on how "the real Jack" witnessed the ship break in two, or the many other  heart-wrenching elements of the tragedy. 

Our "Titanic 100 Team" has dug into records going back a century, scrutinized findings of salvage operators, and research by meteorologists and oceanographers. Although the widely-documented human errors and failure of leadership provide an eternal lesson to us all, the scientific record suggests that climate factors were an equal co-conspirator in leading to a heart-wrenching confluence of events the night of April 14, 1912. The scientific processes which clearly played a role in the terrible sinking include the following six, based on our review of observations by others who have conducted research into the tragedy. The synopsis of our findings:

CLIMATE Records from 1911-12 indicate that higher levels of an air mass influence known as the “North Atlantic Oscillation” or NAO produced long periods of colder-than-normal temperatures over Greenland.  The NAO is defined as the difference in atmospheric pressure between low pressure over Iceland and high pressure over The Azores. The positive phase of the NAO is linked to colder than normal temperatures over Greenland and adjacent areas. 
  • For most of winter of 1911-12, the NAO had also been in a positive phase, much like what has been observed in 2011-12. This climate-induced anomaly was a contributing player in the unusually warm winter that affected much of the United States for both 1911-12 and 2011-12.  
  • Late in the winter of 1911, the NAO had trended from being slightly negative to strongly positive. Increased sea ice over this region can also result from positive NAO episodes. By early April 1912, the positive phase of the NAO was still prevalent, and these factors may have played a role regarding the icebergs that were present when the disaster struck. 

OCEANOGRAPHY Below normal sea surface temperatures may have caused boundary layer air temperatures to be several degrees cooler within 100 feet of the ocean surface. The persistence of the positive NAO may have been a factor in this late winter cold period.
  • Icebergs have a large aspect ratio underwater, perhaps as high as 9:1 under the sea surface which indicates the mass is largely driven by ocean currents rather than the wind. Large icebergs can also be deep enough in the water such that they reach below an important boundary layer in the upper ocean called the Ekman layer. 
  • This permit large icebergs to often be used as "drifters" in the North Atlantic, indicating geostrophic currents. The bergs are primarily not driven by wind stress, but rather bergs simply drift in the current with the Ekman layer. 

GEOLOGY Apparent discoveries by deep sea researchers of unusual rocks on or near the ship’s wreckage were analyzed by geologists. Indications are these rocks may have been glaciated “erratics” which are rocky masses and stones picked up by a slow-moving glacier over time and embedded in it’s base. 
  • Erratics could remain part of any large iceberg mass for hundred of thousand of years. If oriented correctly in the iceberg and grazed by an object at relatively high speed, an erratic could become a formidable resistive force in addition to the ice surrounding it. 
  • That an unusual spread of small gashes scattered on the starboard side of Titanic’s hull, not a straight line of fissures, suggests more breaches occurred than was originally thought.

METEOROLOGY According to meteorologist Robert Paola, a strong Arctic high pressure had settled over the region in which the Titanic was traveling. On the night of the ship’s sinking, gusty winds earlier in the day had subsided, and temperatures were unusually cold in combination with high air pressure at the sea surface in combination with the cold air.

  • Survivors remarked on the often-referenced calm surface of the ocean that was “smooth as glass.” The High pressure system influence surface cold air would have provided a serene environment surrounding the ship's travels the night of April 14.

The Moon had been in a new phase which eliminated it as a light source that would have easily exposed any icebergs from a great distance. Additionally, abnormally high tides from January to March may have dislodged a large amount of icebergs that due to the cold temperatures of winter 1911-12 may have been of a higher density as noted above. 

We have a separate article about this to be posted over the weekend.

PHYSICS A cold surface layer caused the High pressure, may have given          risen to a phenomena called “super refraction” at the sea surface. Dense air pressure has the effect of compressing and bending, or “refracting” light emanating from object. 

  • Refraction is a common occurrence on smooth ocean surfaces as well as in traditional imagery of a hot road or desert surface, in which a distant surface appears to bend or shimmer. On land some claim refraction creates false image of water, while over an ocean surface, lights or land appear to be closer and just above the horizon.
  • Titanic's officers and other witnesses reported lights of a "mystery ship" in the distance. This may in fact have been the Californian or even a lesser-known and illegal whaling ship. Refraction gave the illusion either of these ships were closer to the Titanic than many originally thought, especially the passengers and crew.
  • Brief "Morse Code" light based signals sent to the distant ship would have never been observed, as refraction of such a fleeting light source may have quickly scattered the beam. Some investigators hypothesize this apparent “visible evidence” of a rescue ship that never responded may have reduced the need for a more urgent rescue plan. Once it became clear the mystery ship was not heeding Titanic’s distress calls, the initial orderliness broke into chaos and it became “every man for himself.”
References (additional links and imagery pending)

1 (Climate) 
The Arctic: The ocean, sea ice, icebergs and climate (publication)
El Nino Sank The Titanic? (1998 online article)

2 (Geology) 
Origins of the Iceberg that sank the Titanic (Blogger David Bressan)

3 (Oceanography)
Advance Warning Indicated Iceberg Hazard (Popular Mechanics)

4 (Meteorology) 
How Weather Doomed The Titanic (Weatherwise)

5 (Astronomy) 
Did the Moon sink the Titanic? (3/6/12 UK Mail article)

 (scroll to 26 minutes in this video.. on the sinking & light refraction)

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