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Weather forecasting and analysis, space and historic events, climate information

12:30 PM | The role of weather in the Titanic tragedy 100 years ago this week

Paul Dorian


As we approach the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (April 14-15, 1912), I thought I’d revisit the overall weather pattern that played a key role in the tragedy. By studying weather maps and written records from that time period, some definitive conclusions can be drawn about the weather during the trip across the Atlantic, and there are also some interesting new theories. First off, the voyage started off with fine weather for the first three days including light winds and mild temperatures. However, by the last night of the fateful trip, a strong cold front sweeping off the east coast of Canada, moved through that part of the North Atlantic and the temperatures dropped from the lows 40’s to near freezing in just a few hours. Skies were relatively clear and the stars could be seen rather easily as the moon was in a “new moon” phase. While the seas were relatively calm, a NW flow of air developed behind the front and actually steered a giant ice field towards the ship that night. Finally, at about 20 minutes before midnight, the ship hit an iceberg that has been estimated as possibly weighing up to 300,000 tons, and the ship’s hull was torn open. It then took less than three hours from that point on for the Titanic to sink and there were, of course, too few life rafts for all of the people on board. The temperature of the water was estimated to be as low as 28 degrees – even lower than the conventional 32 degree freezing point as salt helped to lower its freezing point.

Recently, there have been more unconventional theories about nature’s role in the sinking of the Titanic. For example, a recent study suggests that the nearness of the Earth to the Moon and Sun – a proximity not matched in more than 1,000 years – resulted in record tides that help explain why the Titanic encountered so much ice. Specifically, the nearness of the Earth to the Sun and Moon enhanced their gravitational pulls on the ocean and produced record tides in the weeks before the disaster. It is suggested that these record high tides refloated masses of icebergs traditionally stuck along the coastlines of Labrador and Newfoundland and sent them adrift into the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Additionally, a second theory regarding nature’s role in the disaster contends that the icy waters created ideal conditions for unusual “cold water” type mirages that could have hid icebergs from the lookouts on the ship that night, and also may have confused nearby ships trying to help with rescue efforts. These “cold water” mirages act to bend light rays downward as the icy waters cool the adjacent air resulting in warped images which perhaps explains why some ships nearby did not rush to the aid of the Titanic.