The Iceberg That Sank the “Titanic”

The iceberg that sank the Titanic in April 1912 had a history that stretched back over several thousand years.

About 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, Earth entered a period of warming known as an interglacial. The great ice sheets began to retreat, allowing animals, plants and humans to move in rapidly and fill the new landscape. 

But in the far north, some remnants of the Ice Age still remained. In areas of northern Canada and Greenland, the summers remained cool enough to prevent all of the winter snow from melting, and as these hundreds of annual layers of snow built up, the crystals within them became compacted together to form dense ice, hundreds of feet thick. Slowly, under the force of its own immense weight, these thick layers of ice began to move, ponderously flowing downhill from the mountainous regions towards sea level at the rate of several miles per year. These rivers of ice are known as “glaciers”.

Once the glaciers reached the sea, huge chunks of ice would break off, drop into the water, and float away. These are “icebergs”. The behavior of icebergs is due to the unique physical properties of water. Unlike most materials, in which the solid state is denser than the liquid, water expands as it freezes and ice is only seven-eighths as dense as the liquid. So, solid water (ice) floats, and only about one-eighth of an iceberg’s total mass is visible above the waterline—all the rest is underwater.

One area in particular is an especially good producer of icebergs. In western Greenland, in the region around Jakobshavn and particularly the huge Ilulissat ice shelf (almost a million acres), there are about 100 large glaciers that reach the sea. Together, they calve off between 10,000 and 15,000 icebergs each year, which then float away slowly in the currents. Most of these are small in size and melt quickly, but the larger ones are able to survive for several years and drift in the cold water—with a handful each year reaching as far as the North Atlantic Ocean. (Icebergs, being composed of freshwater, will begin melting at 32 degrees F, but saltwater can reach temperatures of 28 degrees F without freezing, thus acting as a huge refrigerator which preserves the ice.) Ice from western Greenland accounts for about 85% of all the icebergs that are found floating in the open Atlantic.

In particular, the year 1908-1909 was wetter and warmer than normal. This produced a higher than usual snowfall in Greenland, followed by a warm spell that caused meltwater to flow down into the cracks and fissures of the Jakobshavn glaciers and freeze there, and this caused a flurry of iceberg creation as these cracks gave way and large chunks of ice broke off and plunged into the sea. It is likely that the Titanic iceberg began its life at this time, breaking off from a Greenland glacier. Meanwhile at about the same time, in faraway Ireland, the White Star Line was finishing up the design work for its newest ocean liner, and construction of the Titanic would begin at the Belfast shipyard in 1909, just as the drifting iceberg was beginning its long slow sea journey. It would take the berg probably a full year to navigate its way through the field of fellow icebergs and to finally emerge from the narrow fjord opening and out into the open water of Baffin Bay. Here, the Greenland Current would have carried it north, eventually to cross the narrow bay over to Newfoundland and then south towards the Atlantic. 

As it turned out, although 1908 was a relatively warm year, the period from 1901 to 1915 was, in general, much cooler than usual in the North Atlantic. The colder waters in turn meant that icebergs from Greenland were able to survive longer and drift much further. The peak year was 1909, in which there were over 700 recorded large icebergs that in some cases reached as far south as 40 degrees latitude—the same as New York City, and well into the established commercial North Atlantic shipping lanes. The year 1912, as it happened, had only a slightly lower number. These were bad years for sea ice. So when the Titanic iceberg finally reached the Labrador Current and drifted out into the open waters of the Atlantic in the spring of 1912 (by now probably less than one-tenth of its original size), it was accompanied by many floating companions.

This ice hazard was well-known, however, and when the Titanic set sail on April 10, it had already been decided that she, like virtually every other vessel sailing across the North Atlantic, would be taking the Outward Southern Track. By this time, commercial cross-Atlantic traffic had become so heavy that the shipping companies had to establish regular routes, like highways, to avoid conflicts and potential collisions. There were traffic lanes established for each direction, and also different tracks that were further north or south depending on the weather. Titanic would be taking the southernmost route—the one where icebergs were the least likely to be found.

But the unusual weather conditions meant that the ice now extended even that far south, and by the evening of April 14 Titanic had already received a number of warnings from other ships that had encountered ice fields and bergs. In response, Captain Smith, who was scheduled to make an easterly turn towards New York as part of his regular route, decided to steam further south for an additional 10 miles before making that turn, putting his ship even further south and, he thought, out of harm’s way. But even that far south, the ice was able to reach him.

The Titanic iceberg probably followed the coast of Canada until, sometime in late March or early April 1912, it encountered the Gulf Stream, the current of warm water that raced up along the North American east coast from the Caribbean and then across to Europe. Moving at about 12 miles per day, the iceberg was now pushed north and east—directly into the Titanic’s path. The two met at 11:20pm on April 14, 1912.

After impact with the Titanic, the iceberg continued its drifting inside the Gulf Stream. But this was an area where the seawater temperature was above freezing, and its heretofore slow rate of melting began to accelerate. Pushed east by the Gulf Stream, it only took a few weeks for the entire berg to melt away into nothing: it was likely completely gone by June 1912.

It is possible, however, that we actually have a photograph of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Even more bizarre, there are two possible contenders (actually there have been several more, but most of those have been ruled out by most Titanic investigators for various reasons).

On April 15, on the morning after the Titanic sank, the German passenger ship Prinz Adalbert was sailing through the same ice field just a few miles away. The ship’s Chief Steward happened to notice a large iceberg floating nearby that had what appeared to be a streak of red paint smeared along its side at the waterline. Although the ship’s crew had not yet heard about the Titanic disaster, the Steward thought it was interesting and snapped a photo of it:

Prinz_Adalbert_1912_Iceberg_Titanic
The Prinz Adalbert photo                                                                    from WikiCommons

On April 20, almost a week after the sinking, a passenger on the German ship Bremen named Stephan Rehorek took a photo of another iceberg. Although it was several miles away from the wreck site, the Bremen reported that there was also floating debris such as doors and deck chairs, and over 100 bodies in life jackets, seen in the area:

Rehorek Iceberg (close)
The Bremen photo                                                                                from Wiki Commons 

Both photos have their pros and cons.

The Adalbert Photo was taken in the immediate area shortly after the wreck, and had a scar of red paint indicating a collision with the red-painted underwater hull of the Titanic. But, the iceberg’s shape does not match that given in descriptions by the surviving eyewitnesses from the Titanic, and the “red paint” may have been just a stripe of marine algae growing on the ice at the waterline. The iceberg in this photo also does not appear to show any damage that one might have expected from an impact with such a huge fast-moving object as the Titanic.

The iceberg in the Bremen Photo was found several days afterwards and much further away from the wreck site. But it was still close enough that it could have drifted there during the time after the collision, and it was accompanied by floating wreckage and bodies which had apparently drifted along with it. It has the Gibraltar-like saddle shape described by the Titanic survivors, and it also has what may be impact damage on its right-hand side (though this may be just normal melt damage).

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