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Posted at 10:36 AM ET, 04/11/2012

The weather during the Titanic disaster: looking back 100 years


The Titanic (NOAA)
On April 20, 1912, John F. Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston and grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, threw out the first ball at Boston’s newly opened, state-of-the-art baseball stadium, dubbed Fenway Park. In an 11-inning game, the Red Sox defeated the New York Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees) by a score of 7-6.*

Unfortunately for the city of Boston, on April 21st the Daily Globe had already decided to greatly reduce its long-planned news coverage of opening day festivities because of a much greater news story—the sinking of the RMS Titanic one week earlier (the night of April 14/15). The dramatic, gruesome—and heroic—stories were still unfolding and continued to captivate the nation.

As was Fenway Park, the ultra luxurious Titanic, at 46,000 tons and 882 feet in length, was also state-of-the-art for its time. Thought to be almost unsinkable, the flagship of the White Star Line struck an iceberg and sank about 375 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia—about the latitude of Providence, RI. As is well known, the much-storied disaster took the lives of about 1,500 passengers and crewmembers, almost two-thirds of the total complement of 2200.

Related: Washington’s Titanic history

But what were the weather conditions preceding, at the time of, and following, the great disaster and did they contribute in any way to what happened, or how it happened?

By most accounts, from the time the Titanic left Southampton, England on April 10th until the night of April 14th, the weather was unremarkable, with relatively mild temperatures (50°-60° F), light to moderate winds, and mostly rain-free skies. Although the ship passed through a cold front on the afternoon of April 12th, the passage was inconsequential, causing little change in the sensible weather.

A second, much more potent, cold front, however, lurked to the west and the Titanic passed through it during the morning of April 14th. As related by meteorologist Robert Paola in the Weatherwise Magazine issue of April/May 1992:

A marked change in the weather was behind the front with brisk northwest winds of 20 knots. Temperatures started to drop from the relatively mild upper 50s to about 50° by noon…..and would fall steadily through the afternoon and into the night. By 7:30 p.m., the temperature was down to 39° [later corrected to 33°]…. and by 10:30 p.m., it had dropped [slightly] below freezing.

Obviously, this air mass had to be quite cold (for the season) in order to maintain subfreezing temperatures hundreds of miles at sea at a latitude of 41° N. (Reviewing 1912 weather maps, meteorologist Paola found that it was a 1037 mb “arctic high.”) Ultimately, the frigid conditions would deal a serious blow to the Titanic’s survivors. Also, it didn’t help that mid-April western Atlantic water temperatures at that latitude are typically in the mid-40s--lower, of course, in the vicinity of an ice field.

In fact, in response to a U.S inquiry, Captain Lord of the Californian – a ship in close proximity to the Titanic when it sank—indicated that water temperatures on the night of April 14th and most of the next day were continuously below the freezing point (of fresh water). The lowest reading, he noted, was 28°F, typically the freezing point of salt water.


Weather map of April 15, 1912 at 1300 GMT
At the time of the Titanic’s collision at 11:40 p.m. (shipboard time) at 41°43’N and 49°56’W, the high pressure center had reached a point very near the ship’s location. Conditions prevailed that one would expect under such a weather scenario: light winds, clear skies, and glassy seas. Also, the night was moonless, which didn’t help in the task of iceberg detection..

So it would appear, and as many have said before, that weather was not really a factor in causing the Titanic to strike an iceberg. Over the decades, other reasons have been proposed: speed, course deviation, dismissal of ice warnings, mirages, etc. But meteorologist Paola refers to doubtful speculation that the weather was a factor, that those glassy seas themselves—seas that were glassy due to lack of wind—were a contributing factor.

The theory goes like this: due to the lack of wind and calm seas, there were no ripples at the base of the iceberg. Without the ripples, Titanic’s lookouts (who did not have or could not find their binoculars) were unable—until the last minute—to see any evidence of an obstacle ahead and were unable to warn the bridge until it was too late. Questionable speculation at best, it would seem.

More bizarre theories for the Titanic’s collision abound as well, some from credible sources, such as The National Geographic Daily News. The blog recently posted an article partially blaming a “supermoon” (closest approach of the moon to the earth in over 1,000 years). This theory asserts that the supermoon, along with an unusual planetary alignment, were responsible for the excessive number of southward-traveling icebergs in the North Atlantic during that fateful spring of 1912.

(Interestingly, Frank Lowenstein, a Climate Adaptation Strategist with The Nature Conservancy, stated that climate change may ultimately be responsible for more icebergs in the seas—not fewer, as some might expect.)

According to Lowenstein and his team: (1) “in the North Atlantic, almost all icebergs come from glaciers running into the sea. Warmer temperatures create extra melt water under glaciers, which acts as a lubricant and makes glaciers move more quickly to the ocean; and (2) icebergs also form from gradual break up of ice shelves, which are already floating on the ocean, and are more common in the southern oceans.”

As for the Titanic’s sinking itself, or rather the speed at which it sank--2 hours and 40 minutes--after incurring a gash (more of a glancing blow, according to many experts) on its starboard side, many have blamed faulty workmanship, substandard riveting, etc. (The minimal use of steel rivets and the overuse of low quality iron rivets in the vicinity of the breach was thought to be a major cause.)

If it is assumed that weather conditions did not cause the disaster, did they contribute to the plight of potential survivors? Most would say they did, in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, at least seas were calm for those who made it to the lifeboats and were lowered safely. They stood a chance of survival without having to fight choppy waters as they awaited the rescue ship Carpathia. On the other hand, many “survivors” perished before being picked up, since air and sea temperatures were so cold, and others died after being rescued.

All in all, it was “A Night to Remember,” (a reference to Walter Lord’s book and the 1958 movie by the same name.)

* By the way, on April 20, 2012 -- at exactly 3:10 p.m., the time of the original first pitch at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912 -- the Boston Red Sox will again be facing off at home against their arch rivals -- the New York Yankees -- to mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of that venerable ballpark.

(1) The time of this map--1300 Greenwich Mean Time on April 15th, 1912--equates to 0900 Atlantic Standard Time on the same day, which would be approximately 9-11 hours after Titanic’s collision.

Note: For a somewhat unusual perspective and comprehensive look at the Titanic disaster and all that led up to it, see On a Sea of Glass : The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic, by Fitch, Layton, and Wormstedt, June 2012.

By  |  10:36 AM ET, 04/11/2012

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