Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Did An Optical Illusion Doom the Titanic? By Rebecca Boyle

"A mirage has hidden the iceberg that will sink the Titanic! No moon and a calm sea deceived the crew! They could not be more wrong with their decision to charge full steam ahead! See how it happened on Weather That Changed the World, Sundays at 9pm!"


The Titanic may have struck an iceberg and sank helplessly because of a strange atmosphere-caused optical illusion, a new book argues. British historian Tim Maltin says super refraction, an extraordinary bending of light that causes mirages, prevented the Titanic’s crew from seeing the fateful iceberg.

It also may have prevented nearby ships from seeing the doomed Titanic, Maltin argues. His theory is the subject of a new book and a documentary airing next month in time for the 100th anniversary of the accident.

Apparently a British investigation in the 1990s brought up super refraction, but no one ever studied it in depth, according to Smithsonian magazine, which just published an excerpt from Maltin’s new book. Maltin studied old weather records, shipping logs and survivor testimonies to determine the atmospheric conditions on April 15, 1912. He argues conditions were ripe for super refraction, caused by a thermal inversion in the area south of Newfoundland were the ship was sailing. This abnormal bending of light waves would have created a false horizon, and the iceberg lay beneath it, out of view of the ship’s lookouts.

They sounded the alarm when the iceberg was a mile away, but it was too late. The same bizarre atmospheric conditions could have prevented a nearby ship, the Californian, from seeing or hailing the doomed Titanic, Maltin says. It’s a frustrating, sad explanation. Click through to the Smithsonian for more detail.

... And the Iceberg That Doomed It: Photo of the iceberg which was probably rammed by the RMS Titanic, taken five days after the disaster by Stephan Rehorek.  Wikimedia Commons

Did the Titanic Sink Because of an Optical Illusion?: New research may have found the reason why the ship struck an iceberg: light refraction By Tim Maltin


Illustrations by Charles Floyd
Smithsonian magazine, March 2012

An unusual optical phenomenon explains why the Titanic struck an iceberg and received no assistance from a nearby ship, according to new research by British historian Tim Maltin. Atmospheric conditions in the area that night were ripe for super refraction, Maltin found. This extraordinary bending of light causes miraging, which, he discovered, was recorded by several ships in the area. He says it also prevented the Titanic’s lookouts from seeing the iceberg in time and the freighter Californian from identifying the ocean liner and communicating with it. A 1992 British government investigation suggested that super refraction may have played a role in the disaster, but that possibility went unexplored until Maltin mined weather records, survivors’ testimony and long-forgotten ships’ logs. His findings—presented in his new book, A Very Deceiving Night, and the documentary film Titanic’s Final Mystery, premiering on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. on April 15—are distilled here:

1. The Titanic was sailing from Gulf Stream waters into the frigid Labrador Current, where the air column was cooling from the bottom up, creating a thermal inversion: layers of cold air below layers of warmer air. Extraordinarily high air pressure kept the air free of fog.

2. A thermal inversion refracts light abnormally and can create a superior mirage: Objects appear higher (and therefore nearer) than they actually are, before a false horizon. The area between the false horizon and the true one may appear as haze.

3. The Californian’s radio operator warned the Titanic of ice. But the moonless night provided little contrast, and a calm sea masked the line between the true and false horizons, camouflaging the iceberg. A Titanic lookout sounded the alarm when the berg was about a mile away—too late.

4. Shortly before the collision, the Titanic sailed into the Californian’s view—but it appeared too near and small to be the great ocean liner. Californian captain Stanley Lord knew the Titanic was the only other ship in the area with a radio, and so concluded this ship did not have one.

5. Lord said he repeatedly had someone signal the ship by Morse lamp “and she did not take the slightest notice of it.” The Titanic, now in trouble, signaled the Californian by Morse lamp, also to no avail. The abnormally stratified air was distorting and disrupting the signals.

6. The Titanic fired distress rockets some 600 feet into the air—but they appeared to be much lower relative to the ship. Those aboard the Californian, unsure of what they saw, ignored the signals. When the Titanic sank, at 2:20 a.m. April 15, they thought the ship might be simply sailing away.

Additional Sources

Adapted from A Very Deceiving Night, by Tim Maltin. Copyright © 2012. With the permission of Airborne TV & Film.




All facts taken from the book '101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic' by Tim Maltin.

  • Titanic and the other White Star Line ships were among the only ones with two crew members dedicated as lookouts.


  • Lookouts described a thin haze on the horizon and survivors described that the thick smoke coming from the wreck flattened and hung in the air like a mushroom cloud the night of the Titanic's disaster. These conditions indicate that Titanic could have been in the midst of a cold water mirage.


  • There was no moon when the titanic was sailing, and the only way the lookouts could have spotted an iceberg was against the backdrop of a blanket of stars. However, the hot and cold air could have caused a mirage, distorting the sea, and raising up the horizon behind the iceberg, cloaking it.


  • What Capitan Stanley Lord saw that night could have been affected by refraction, distorting the ship so that it didn't look anything like Titanic at all.


  • Due to the conditions, the iceberg that damaged the Titanic could have been effectively invisible for 20 minutes. 


  • A soft horizon refers to when it's hard to define where the sky ends and the sea commences.


All facts taken from the book '101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic' by Tim Maltin.

  • A hidden ice shelf ripped along Titanic's hull, causing damage at a million foot tonnes a second.


  • In 5 seconds, Titanic's compartments are smashed open along 200 feet of her hull.


  • The iceberg took out six of Titanic's 16 watertight compartments.


  • The Paula was likely the last ship that went close to the Titanic's wreck site before it sank. It reported the temperature changing from 12.8, to -1.4, to 13 degrees Celsius.


  • The Marengo left New York on April 11, 1912 and was very near the wreck site the day Titanic collided. She reported the sea temperature dropping dramatically, as well as much refraction on the horizon with a clear and bright night.


  • Refraction refers to strange optical effects and distortion in the clear air.


  • The difference in air density between hot and cold air stacked on top of each other bends light, creating a shimmering effect, or mirage.


  • The Titanic sank right in the centre of a 1035 millibar arctic high, the highest pressure anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere at the time.


All facts taken from the book '101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic' by Tim Maltin.

  • Ice Patrol uses radar technology to track the path of icebergs in the North Atlantic


  • Ice Patrol was set up as a direct consequence of the Titanic disaster.


  • Icebergs in the Western North Atlantic that enter shipping lanes come primarily from the West Coast of Greenland.


  • The freezing current that carries the icebergs is called the Labrador.


  • The Labrador Current cuts into the warmer Gulf Stream.


  • In 1912, over 1,000 icebergs entered the North Atlantic shipping lanes.


  • On average, 500 icebergs enter the North Atlantic shipping lanes.


  • The iceberg that wounded the Titanic came from the Greenland Glaciers and was carried by the freezing Labrador Current.


  • 9/10ths of an iceberg is under water.


  • Before remote technology, forecasters relied on ships that travelled the world, and took the air and water temperatures every four hours. Meteorological offices of the ships’ countries used these readings to build synoptic charts of the weather.


  • A NOAA centre in Asheville, North Carolina stores all weather data sent by thousands of ships that crisscrossed the oceans of the globe.


  • The Titanic most likely sank in the Labrador Current.


  • The German Climate Data Centre in Hamburg stores about 37,000 journals from sailing ships and steamers beginning in 1829.


  • The Labrador Current brought freezing water underneath the air warmed by the Gulf Stream.


  • Cold water mirages are commonly seen in the right conditions.