Perform a search on the terms "weather and titanic" and you'll find a number of articles investigating how weather may have contributed to the Titanic's demise, but few that tell the story of the weather alone; few that ask the questions of...
- How did the spring of 1912 differ from other spring seasons before it?
- What type of weather did the passengers experience during the voyage?
- Were weather observations a part of the daily operations aboard the Titanic vessel?
In addition to exploring these questions, we'll also discuss the general weather conditions surrounding the embarkation, sailing, and sinking of the grandiose Titanic vessel.
Conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean in Early 1912
One of the dangers of sailing in the northern stretches of ocean in winter and spring has always been icebergs. But according to reports, there was an unusually large number of southward-drifting icebergs in the North Atlantic during the spring of 1912.
Several weeks after the Titanic tragedy, The New York Times published an article that addressed this fact, and whose subject and title, "Prevalence of Icebergs Due to Warm Arctic Winter," could easily fit in with the climate-focused articles of today. In it, experts from the Hydrographic Office and U.S. Revenue-Cutter Service (now the U.S. Coast Guard) blame an unusually heavy Greenland snowpack during the winter of 1910-11 followed by an abnormally hot summer and mild 1911-12 winter for the "creation of an enormously large crop of icebergs from the West Greenland glaciers," and the subsequent breaking away of these into floe and field ice. The article continues on by noting that the Labrador Current would not have drifted the ice so unusually far south had it not been for the rare north/northwesterly winds that spring, which aided in driving the icebergs farther south into transatlantic routes.
A Springtime Send-Off in Southampton
While ominous conditions awaited Titanic in the far North Atlantic Ocean, the weather was fine and fair on Europe's North Atlantic coast. From the time Titanic left Southampton, England on April 10 until the morning of April 14, temperatures were mild in the 50s and 60s °F, winds were light to moderate, and skies were mostly rain-free. As stated in the final report of the U.S. Senate Inquiry of the Titanic disaster:
"During the entire voyage the weather was clear, with the single exception of 10 minutes of fog, and the sea was calm throughout the voyage, with sunshine the whole of each day and bright starlight every night."
Cold Frontal Passages on April 12 & April 14
On the night of April 12, the ship passed through a weak cold front. However, it wasn't until the ship passed through a second cold front the morning of April 14 that the pleasant spring weather began to turn winter-like. Weather maps from that date reveal that the air mass associated with the front was an arctic high--a rare occurrence for so late in the spring. Titanic's Second Officer Lightoller recounts the dramatic change in temperature later that evening:
"From 6 p.m. onwards to the time of the collision the weather was perfectly clear and fine. There was no moon, the stars were out, and there was not a cloud in the sky. There was, however, a drop in temperature of 10 deg. in slightly less than two hours, and by about 7:30 p.m. the temperature was 33 deg. F., and it eventually fell to 32 deg. F."
The combination of this unseasonably cold arctic air and the presence of an ice field near the Titanic's location of 41 degrees north latitude lowered ocean temperatures from their mid-April average in the mid-40s °F, to as low as 28°F (according to the testimony given by the Californian's Captain Lord).
The bitter cold air and ocean temperatures and calm conditions remained during the ship's sinking and lingered into the following days of rescue and recovery.
Weather Reports Aboard the RMS Titanic
No public evidence of weather logs exists from the Titanic. But despite this, we know from statements taken from Titanic's crewmen during the U.S. Senate Inquiry that weather observations were were in fact routinely taken aboard the Titanic. These were taken every 2 hours and recorded in the ship's log. Basic observations included measurements of air temperature (taken by mercury thermometer), water temperature (taken by lowering a small pail over the side of the ship by string and collecting water from the sea's surface), and air pressure (taken by mercury barometer).
In addition to the measurements taken aboard, the ship also would have received Weather Bureau (National Weather Service) forecasts which the Marconi Company began broadcasting (by wireless telegraphy) to steamers in 1902. Titanic's wireless operators, Chief wireless officer Jack Phillips and junior wireless officer Harold Bride, would have received these and relayed them to the bridge.
In the later part of the voyage, most of these reports came in the form of ice warnings from nearby ships.
The Titanic began receiving iceberg warnings around April 13--three days into its voyage. On April 14, the Titanic's final day afloat, she received six caution messages from nearby ships:
09:00 "bergs, growlers and field ice" RMS Caronia
13:42 "passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice" RMS Baltic
13:45 "passed two large icebergs" SS Amerika
19:30 "three large bergs" SS Californian
21:40 "Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice." steamer Mesaba
22:30 "Say old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice." SS Californian
Of the above messages, only half were relayed to Captain Smith and the ship's bridge. Having been employees of Marconi, not members of the ship's crew, Phillips and Bride may have failed to realize the significance of these weather reports and alerts. To them, relaying these was a secondary priority to the job at hand: sending messages for the ship's passengers. On April 14, it would have been even less of a priority, since Phillips was preoccupied with clearing a backlog of messages from the radio set break down that occurred the day before.
Weather Tells Titanic's Story From a Personal
In the grand scheme of things, the weather that the Titanic and it's passengers experienced may seem like an insignificant part of this historic event. But like most things related to the Titanic disaster, I find it gives us one small look closer into the lives of the 2,223 men, women, and children who sailed on the fateful voyage. What could be more elating than being among the first to travel (and in what fine weather!) on the largest, most luxurious liner of that time? And what, more terrifying than facing man's weakness against nature in the unforgiving extremes of physical cold?
Author unknown. (1912, May 5). Prevalence of Icebergs Due to Warm Arctic Winter. The New York Times. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FA0715FD3E5813738DDDAC0894DD405B828DF1D3
Potter, Sean. (2012, March/April). Retrospect: April 15, 1912: Sinking of the Titanic. Weatherwise Magazine. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.weatherwise.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/2012/March-April%202012/retrospect-full.html
The Titanic Inquiry Project: Electronic Copies of the Inquiries Into the Disaster. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.titanicinquiry.org/