Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Titanic Sinks. Great Loss of Life!

April 15, 1912: "New Titanic Sinks, 1500 Died".

Titanic Sinks, Great Loss of Life! This was one of the first famous headlines to be published that year. Public domain images from here.

I am fascinated by the past, and I have always been fascinated by the history surrounding the tragedy of the RMS Titanic. Exactly today (the day of the post) we celebrate 103 years of the tragedy, and I thought of doing a small post commemorating on the subject. I guess this post will figure into my "history-ephemeral-ramblings". Here we go.

RMS Titanic photographed on Cork harbor, 11 April 1912. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Historical Gist

The RMS Titanic has gone down in history as the worst, or at least as the most famous ocean-navigation disaster. Many myths and urban legends have served as popular explanations as to why she encountered that fateful iceberg in the North Atlantic on 14 April 1912, at 11:40 pm (ship's time) (Maltin, 2012). What seems true, as told by survivor accounts, is that it took the ship approximately 2 hours to sink, loudly breaking in half in the early hours of April 15. Of course, oceanography, climatology, and aspects of material technology provide clues that help elucidate the tragedy. I will explore only a few here.

Several ocean-climate related hypotheses could explain such titanic disaster. One is the presence of the icebergs further-than normal south of the Atlantic. During the days before the incident, icebergs were observed by nearby ships surrounding the area where the RMS Titanic sank. Some were even photographed.

Others have argued that the disaster was due to human error. Deck observations were apparently sporadic on the night Titanic sank, and the ship was cruising at top speed. Moreover, there is even considerable debate concerning likely engineering error. This is founded on its speedy construction, bad rivets, and other second-rate construction materials. The idea was to make the Titanic the fastest, largest, most luxurious ship of the White Star line, fast. The crew wanted to dash across the Atlantic, making harbor in New York in record time.

North Atlantic iceberg drift routes. Map from Atlas of Canada, modified by Patrick Lockerby at Science 2.0.

The occurrence of the icebergs is explained through oceanography. North Atlantic icebergs form and dislodge from landlocked glaciers. Some are carried by the Transpolar Drift Stream, which carries ice to the Greenland sea and the North Atlantic from as far as Siberia and the North Pole. Other iceberg sources include the circumpolar region and the Greenland Ice Cap. Icebergs often transport rocks, which they piggyback as relics of they landlocked origins. These are called drift stones, as the one below.

Piggybacking drifting relic on a melting iceberg off the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska.

Ocean currents move clockwise around Greenland, flushing icebergs floating down its coasts and in the Greenland and Labrador sea. Often, they may get further south where they meet slightly warmer waters coming up from the Gulf Stream. The icebergs that make it further south, say about near 45 latitudes, get there carried by coastal currents such as the Labrador Current and the East Greenland Current.

As huge slabs of ice, icebergs float easily over water because ice is less dense than ocean water. This is due to the crystalline shape of the molecules in frozen water, which in turn decrease overall density. Trivia bit: by definition, ice could even be classified as a metamorphic rock.

Location of RMS Titanic's final resting place in the abysmal plain off the Newfoundland continental shelf.

Icebergs float down the coast carried by such currents until reaching the upper limits of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream at this latitude remains laden with warmer, saltier water before becoming the North Atlantic Current (or NAC) closer to Iceland. Icebergs rarely make it further South than these latitudes because they either melt during the journey or by meeting the Gulf Stream.  Check this awesome Scientific American article on the science behind the tragedy here. Also, see Maltin (2012) for other interesting hypotheses that come really well together to explain this tragedy.

Iceberg photographed from the deck of the Prinz Albert in the morning of 15 April 1912 by its chief steward. The steward photographed it because of a visible smear of red paint on the iceberg. He did not know about Titanic's tragedy yet! 

Simply, the RMS Titanic intercepted icebergs drifting further down their major drift route near the shelf of Newfoundland, despite the multiple warnings of observed icebergs in the region. This was not abnormal to seasoned North Atlantic seamen. Many basic textbooks, much older than the Titanic herself, already indicate the origin and drifting patterns of icebergs (as an example see LeConte, 1886:56-58), and therefore, this knowledge surely did not escape experienced seamen. More so when so many other ships alerted the Titanic to mind observed icebergs in the region.

It was her maiden voyage and she was sprinting pristine out of the White Star docks in Belfast, Ireland. The result of the marriage between human technology, its culture, and the random probability of the encounter between human error and nature. The results of that concoction lie now scattered on the abyss, slightly off of Newfoundland's continental shelf, 4000 meters deep.

RMS Titanic before departure from the Southampton docks, on 10 April 1912.

The Archaeology of the Wreckage

One of the aspects that fascinate me the most about Titanic lore is the anthropology or archeology of the wreckage. The last tallies of the disaster put the loss of human life at 1,517 from the 2,223 she was carrying (Maltin, 2012). There was also a high loss in materials. Of course the ship and everything in it. Luxurious or naught are now encased around in deep oceanic sediment. Within these there are lost treasures, but unlike as told by Titanic legends, there were no diamonds or gold bullion cases aboard the liner. Probably, the most expensive portable on board was a neoclassical oil painting titled "La Circassiene a Bain" by Merry-Joseph Blondel in 1814, billing at about 6 million dollars then (New York Times, 16 January 1913). See it here.

Since the discovery of the wreckage in 1985, artifacts have been extracted from the site for several purposes. One of them, as you guessed it, is for exhibition. I have attended two of these exhibits (there is one permanent at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada), and they have been extraordinary in their organization and scope of the artifacts included.

On the 100's anniversary of the disaster, photographs of human remains surfaced. These are the first to be readily plausible and were published by the Herald Sun (here). There are probably more remains encased within compartments of the decomposing ship on the bottom of the ocean. Check out NOAA's RMS Titanic Panoramio here.

Time stopped timepiece recovered from the RMS Titanic. Time-frozen at 2:28 am, around the time when she finally went fully under. Free public domain image from here.

To me, the joyful aspects of working with historical pieces, be it fossilized bones or pottery sherds, is that they serve as the closest thing we have to a time machine. These artifacts are a sort of window to the past. Like in the presence of museum specimens, as I shared in my earlier museum post, artifacts have the power to transport anyone to their own time and place. One can not help but feel awed and humbled by the span of time that can separate us.  As historical fragments themselves, survivors of their circumstances, they have the potential to open such windows.

As you read this, the RMS Titanic and all its remains sleep under severe oceanic stress, from pressure, temperature, and iron-eating bacteria. It is estimated that the wreckage will be reduced to an oxidized pile of iron within our century.


Allen Butler, Daniel. 1998. Unsinkable: The Full Story of RMS Titanic.

Geller, Judith B. 2005. Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. RMS Titanic Inc.

LeConte, Joseph. 1886. Appleton's A Compend of Geology. Appleton's Science Textbooks, Appleton and Co., New York.

Maltin, Tim. 2012. Titanic: A Very Deceiving Night. Malt House Publishing.

Matei, Sorin Adam. 2012. Titanic wreck exact location on Google Earth map of North Atlantic.

1 comment: