A possible role of space weather in the Titanic disaster



In my recent article (Zinkova, 2020) I discussed the possibility of the space weather affecting some aspects of the Titanic’s disaster. Some parts of my paper did not make it through the review process because as one of the reviewers stated they were too speculative. Today I would like to offer to your attention these unpublished parts. They are speculative, and yet they are referenced. In any case, I hope that the readers could learn something new.  

 Dead calm?

Titanic second officer Charles Lightoller testified to Wreck Commissioner’s Court (1912):

Then there was no wind, not the slightest breath of air. And most particular of all in my estimation is the fact, a most extraordinary circumstance, that there was not any swell. Had there been the slightest degree of swell I have no doubt that berg would have been seen in plenty of time to clear it.

Lightoller was right. “With a dead calm sea there is no sign at all to give you any indication that there is anything there” testified Sir Ernest Shackleton (Wreck Commissioner’s Court, 1912). However, the map created with the NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis project shows that at 0300 GMT (10 minutes before the collision) the area of the disaster was located in a high-pressure system (Figure 1, left frame), and wind in this area was around 6 m/sec (Figure 1, right frame). According to NOAA (2013), a wind of such speed would have generated waves with a height of 1-1.5 metres. Small waves would become longer and develop numerous whitecaps. A wind of such speed would have been enough to see waves breaking off the iceberg in time to avoid the collision. 

The author contacted Dr. Gilbert Compo, a Senior Research Scientist with the NOAA CIRES project, and asked him if 6 m/sec wind could have been plotted in error. Below is his response:

Everything seems to be working correctly. If you compare the sea level pressure to hand-drawn maps at the time [Figure 2], you will see that they are very close. The still winds seem to be very unlikely given the observations that we have assimilated. The wind field is very consistent with the pressure field.

Dr. Compo also pointed out that both versions of the NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis provide similar results in regards to the wind speed in the area of the disaster.

Light wind or no wind conditions could occur in the centre of a high-pressure system. However, at the time of the disaster, the centre of the high-pressure system was located a few hundred kilometres away from the Titanic (Zinkova, 2019a). Col conditions were not affecting the area of the disaster (Figure 1 left frame). (Basu et.al, 2014) 

Because the meteorological situation cannot explain the dead calm situation, it is reasonable to assume that another force was involved in its making.  During the years, scientists have studied the response of the ground-level meteorological components to geomagnetic storms (Laštovička, 1996), (Avakyan et al., 2015), (Tóth and Szegedi, 2003). Surprisingly it appears that the tropospheric response to geomagnetic storms is stronger than it is in the middle and upper atmosphere (Laštovička, 1996). The extent of the tropospheric response depends on the location, type of the storm, and other factors. It appears that the areas of the strongest response are located in the auroral oval (Laštovička, 1996). Bucha and Bucha (1998) found a strong correlation between sea level air pressure and geomagnetic activity. A sign of the correlation depends on the location. Mehra (1990) demonstrated that geomagnetic storms decreased the ground wind and increased humidity in India. Smirnov (2014) demonstrated that an anomalous increase in humidity and a decrease in wind strength were recorded in Kamchatka during a geomagnetic storm on 5 April 2010. 

Figure 1
Figure 1. Left frame: pressure at mean sea level. Right frame: Vector wind at 1000mb at 0300 GMT 15 April 1912 (10 minutes before the collision). The location of the disaster is marked by ‘X’. Maps data created with NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis project.

Figure 2. Historical surface weather analysis maps (from The NOAA Central Library) for 14 April (upper frame) and 15 April (lower frame). (Location of the disaster is marked by ‘X’).

In the Titanic’s situation, the decrease in wind coincided with the beginning of the geomagnetic storm. Around down, the wind started to increase. Titanic Third Officer Herbert Pitman testified: “We drifted toward daylight, as a little breeze sprang up” (Committee on Commerce United States Senate, 1912). Per NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis maps (Figure 3, middle frame), “a little breeze” speed was around 7 m/sec (around 25 km/hour).  By 1200 GMT, the wind increased. Carpathia’s Captain Arthur Rostron testified that by that time 

The wind and sea were then beginning to get up. There was a moderate breeze blowing then, and a little slop of the sea

(Committee on Commerce United States Senate, 1912).  (My highlight). 

Rostron’s description almost agrees with NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis maps (Figure 3, lower frame).

Under normal conditions, an increase in wind strength could have resulted in some of the lifeboats becoming unstable. However, this solar storm may have been responsible for suppressing the wind strength and sea state, thus making the iceberg more difficult to detect. Ironically, it could have also prevented some of the lifeboats from overturning during the first few hours after the Titanic sank. 

Figure 3
Figure 3. Vector wind at 1000 mb 15 April 1912 for 0300 GMT (upper frame), 0008 GMT (middle frame) and 1200 GMT lower frame. ‘X’ marks the location of the disaster. Maps data created with NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis project. 

Signals from the Morse lamps unrecognized

Both Titanic and Californian used Morse lamps while trying to establish contact with each other. Neither was able to see a response. However, the Californian’s officers testified that at first, they mistook the flickering Titanic’s masthead light for the Morse lamp (Wreck Commissioner’s Court, 1912).  Distant electrical lights flicker due to terrestrial scintillation. Meyer-Arendt and Emmanue (1965) describe terrestrial scintillation as “a major hazard to optical communication”. It is reasonable to assume that Morse signals were unrecognizable due to terrestrial scintillation. Meyer-Arendt and Emmanue (1965) connected the decrease in terrestrial scintillation to the presence of moderate winds. However, there was no wind on the night of the tragedy, possibly due to a geomagnetic storm. Another factor that increases the intensity of terrestrial scintillation is the increase in relative humidity (Carlon, 1965). Solar storms could increase humidity (Mehra, 1990), (Smirnov, 2014). 


The connection between geomagnetic storms and the near-ground weather is speculative. However, if it did influence the weather, it could have affected all aspects of the tragedy, including the collision with the iceberg and the failed communications with the Californian. The solar wind could have decreased ground winds, which was one of the major reasons the ocean was flat calm. If the ocean were not flat calm, the iceberg would have been much easier to spot in time to avoid the collision. Besides, the decreased wind and increased humidity could have intensified terrestrial scintillation. Terrestrial scintillation prevented the Titanic and Californian from recognizing Morse lamp signals from each other. 


The author thanks Dr. Gilbert Compo of NOAA for very helpful discussions regarding NOAA-CIRES Reanalysis project. 


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Encyclopedia Titanica (2020) A possible role of space weather in the Titanic disaster (Titanica!, ref: #180, published 5 October 2020, generated 20th April 2021 07:12:37 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/a-possible-role-of-space-weather-in-the-titanic-disaster.html