His story puts many Greek tragedies to shame.
The Titanic was a beauty destined for greatness, but fate was against her. On a cold April night in 1912, she fell into disgrace, sinking to her watery grave in the icy North Atlantic.
But as with any story, there is more to this story.
Although an iceberg led to the downfall of the Titanic, a character in the background – the weather – set the stage for a series of unfortunate events that ultimately culminated in a most historic catastrophe.
FILE – This harrowing scene, painted by German artist Willy Stoewer, depicts the sinking of the Titanic, the proud British luxury liner that struck an iceberg off New Foundland on April 14, 1912, carrying 1,517 people, many of Americans, to their (Getty Pictures)
“The reason we’re all fascinated by the Titanic today, to some degree, is because its story is a kind of modern tragedy,” said Titanic author and historian Tim Maltin.
According to Maltin, the tragedy that befell the Titanic may have been caused by unusual atmospheric conditions.
“The weather the night the Titanic sank was absolutely extraordinary,” he said. “It was one of the quietest nights and clearest nights in history.”
That fateful night was April 14, 1912. The Titanic was en route from Southampton, England to New York, passing through waters about 460 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada.
A red marker indicates the approximate location of the Titanic when it sank off the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada. (NOAA)
According to Maltin, in this particular part of the Atlantic Ocean, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the cold waters of the Labrador Current collided and did not mix.
“It created what we call a thermal inversion, where you have much warmer air on top of very cold air, among the icebergs,” he said.
Usually warm air sits under a layer of cold air, as the sun heats the ground and the air becomes cooler at higher altitudes. So, when opposite or reverse stratification occurs, it is called thermal inversion.
FILE – A large iceberg floats in the distance in the Atlantic Ocean, April 26, 2017 off Ferryland, Newfoundland, Canada. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The thermal inversion the night the Titanic sank essentially turned the warm air layer into a weighted blanket that pushed aerosol molecules into the cold air layer below. This created clear skies at high altitudes (where the warm air was), but a hazy veneer closer to sea level (where the cold air was).
“The problem is that the molecules themselves in the air actually had the effect of scattering light,” Maltin said.
According to Maltin, this scattered light created an optical illusion called a “superior mirage”. Unlike desert mirages, which are formed by hot air, higher mirages are formed by cold water.
File – The green flash at sunset, the rarest prismatic color refracted by the atmosphere”, circa 1935. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Also, while desert mirages seem to pull the sky below the horizon—and create the illusion of puddles on the ground—higher mirages seem to raise the horizon into the sky.
“This had the effect of reducing the apparent angular size of the iceberg in the dark that night,” Maltin said. “And with the iceberg coming directly towards the lookouts, that unfortunately meant the iceberg had to be much closer before it was seen.”
And by the time the Titanic saw the iceberg, it was too late.
FILE – White Star Line rms Titanic sinking around 2.20am Monday morning April 15, 1912 after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic. (Universal History Archive/Universal Pictures Group via Getty Images)
To make matters worse, the upper mirage caused by the thermal inversion thwarted rescue efforts.
The Titanic fired rockets into the air to signal her distress to nearby ships, but due to the mirage “raising” the horizon upward, the rockets were too small to see.
This illusion also lifted the horizon to create a veil over part of the Titanic.
“There was a salvage ship called the Californian, just 10 miles from where the Titanic sank,” Maltin said. “But through a series of very tragic events, because the air was so clear, because the horizon seemed to be slightly elevated beyond the Titanic, instead of being 800 feet 10 miles away, they judged it to be a 400ft vessel at 5km.”
FILE – Captain Stanley Lord of the SS Californian (front row holding spy glass) poses with three senior officers. (Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
This judgment made the crew of the Californian believe that they had not found the Titanic. On the contrary, they thought they had found a small ship in the distance.
And because the crew thought the ship was just a small vessel, they didn’t believe it had radio capabilities, as only large ocean liners were equipped with this technology at the time. Thus, the Californians did not use their radio to hail what was indeed the sinking Titanic.
The series of unfortunate events continued.
“They then sent their Morse lamp signal to try to transmit Morse code to this ship which they thought had no radio,” Maltin said. “Unfortunately, the layered air in the thermal inversion really caused some kind of scintillation.”
FILE – Sailor with signal lamp, 1939. (Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)
Low aerosols from the thermal inversion caused the light emitted by the Morse lamp symbols – calls for help – to disperse into the air.
“So the Titanic was saying, ‘We are the sinking Titanic, get your ships ready.’ And the Californian was looking at the Titanic and assuming that the Titanic was burning flickering oil lamps when in fact the Titanic, of course, was a very modern ship with very strong electric lamps,” Maltin said.
“These extraordinary weather conditions not only caused the critical sighting of the boat to be just too late, but also prevented a ship just 10 miles away from coming to the Titanic’s aid.”
Instead, another ship, the Carpathia, came to assist the Titanic – but did not arrive until over an hour after the ship had already sunk.
FILE – The iceberg that sank the Olympic-class White Star Line RMS Titanic that struck her on April 12, 1912 on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Tonight, about 1,500 passengers and crew of the Titanic were lost at sea.
Many lessons were learned from that fateful night and implemented later.
“After the sinking of the Titanic, they did two things: they instituted 24-hour radio surveillance, which was extremely helpful. They also instituted the International Ice Patrol, which actually sends helicopters over this area to search, trace and tell ships where the ice is. is,” Maltin said.
FILE – A U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol Vessel conducts surface observations of icebergs which are then broadcast twice daily to vessels on the North Atlantic Way routes. (Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
As for thermal inversions, Maltin said ships are much better equipped to handle them today – however, they are not completely clear.
“There is evidence that radar struggles in this type of thermal inversion situation,” he said. “I don’t want to worry people, but it’s possible that this kind of accident could happen again.”
“Titanic symbolizes that no matter how brilliant and creative humanity is, the world and the universe always have the upper hand.”
Learn more about FOX Weather.