A Very Deceiving Night: Miraging ice barrier

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Superior mirage Titanic. Although visibility was extremely good, the night Titanic sank was not as crystal clear as it seemed. As we have seen in the Sea Hedges chapter, refraction on the horizon looks like a haze, due to the extra light scattering in the miraging zone.  As well as being noticed by Titanic’s lookouts, this slightly hazy, abnormally refracting horizon was also noticed by Second Officer James Bisset of Titanic’s eventual rescue ship, the Carpathia, then eastbound, 30 miles to the southward of Titanic’s track. At 9.30pm on 14th April 1912 the Carpathia was in about 41.9N 50.3W, directly south of the ice barrier which, only two hours later, Titanic would crash into an outlaying iceberg of.  As Bisset headed eastward, he and Captain Rostron looked northwards from the port wing of Carpathia’s bridge:

“I walked with the Captain in the darkness to the port wing of the bridge. The weather was calm. The sea smooth with no wind. The sky was clear and the stars were shining, there was no moon, but the Aurora Borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon. The air was intensely cold.  Though visibility was good, the peculiar atmospheric conditions caused partly by the melting of the large ice field to our northwards in the waters of the Gulf Stream, made the sea and sky seem to blend into one another so that it was difficult to define the horizon.

And Bisset recorded the refracting horizon again in the early hours of the following morning, as he steamed towards the ice field and Titanic’s wreck site:

The peculiar atmospheric conditions of visibility intensified as we approached the icefield with the greenish beams of the Aurora Borealis shimmering and confusing the horizon ahead of us.

Second Class Titanic survivor, Lawrence Beesley, described the Aurora Borealis as follows in his 1912 book, The Loss of the Titanic:

Towards 3am we saw a faint glow in the sky ahead…the soft light increased for a time, and died away a little; glowed again, and then remained stationary for some minutes! The Northen Lights! It suddenly came to me, and so it was: presently the light arched fanwise across the northern sky, with faint streamers reaching towards the Pole-star.”

superior mirage titanic

Aurora Borealis, photograph by Pekka Parviainen.  The aurora display seen at Titanic’s wreck site must have been very bright in order for it to register to the eye as green, as weaker displays usually appear whitish or grey.

But the Aurora were not confusing the horizon on their own, they were merely lighting the confused horizon over the miraging field ice.  This field ice beyond Titanic’s wreck site was described by Captain Rostron of the rescue ship Carpathia, when she arrived at Titanic’s wreck site:

“…about two or three miles from the position of the “Titanic’s” wreckage we saw a huge ice-field extending as far as we could see, N.W. to S.E.

As well as this enormous area of field ice, there were also icebergs surrounding Titanic’s wreck site:

Rostron 25501 “In the morning, when it was full daylight, did you see many icebergs?” “Yes, I sent a Junior Officer to the top of the wheelhouse, and told him to count the icebergs 150 to 200 feet high; I sampled out one or two and told him to count the icebergs of about that size. He counted 25 large ones, 150 to 200 feet high, and stopped counting the smaller ones; there were dozens and dozens all over the place”

This is confirmed by Quartermaster Hitchens at the American Enquiry:  “In the morning, when it turned daybreak, we could see icebergs everywhere; also a field of ice about 20 to 30 miles long, which it took the Carpathia 2 miles to get clear from when it picked the boats up. The icebergs was up on every point of the compass, almost.”

At 2pm in the afternoon before Titanic’s collision, the Mesaba had also been heading about west, when she arrived at it, in daylight:

“At 2pm on April 14 1912 in latitude 42° north, longitude 50° west we passed another field of pack ice, with numerous bergs, intermixed, and extended from four points on the starboard bow [NW] to abeam on the port side. Had to steer about 20 miles south to clear it.  Ice seemed to be one solid wall of ice at least 16 feet high, as far as could be seen. In latitude 41° 35’ north, longitude 50° 30’ west, we came to the end of it, and at 4 p.m. – April 14 – we were able to again steer to the westward.”

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Field ice with superior mirage at sunset, North West Greenland © ArcticPhoto

Notice in the photograph above how a superior mirage makes the flat ice in the distance appear like a wall of ice, several feet high.  When Mesaba says: “Ice seemed to be one solid wall of ice at least 16 feet high, as far as could be seen”, she is in fact describing miraging field ice.  This is because for field ice to be floating 16 feet above the water, it would have to be about 120 feet thick, which it was not.  In reality, we know from the positional data given by the Mesaba and by the location of Titanic’s wreck site that this was the field ice that Titanic sank only a couple of miles east of and which the Californian later was able to plough through, twice, during the early morning of the 15th April 1912.

Lord 1959 Affidavit: “I immediately got under way and proceeded as quickly as possible on courses between S. and S.W., pushing through about two to three miles of field ice.”

It was therefore only a few feet thick, at most, as you would expect from pack ice.  Atmospheric refraction expert Dr. Andrew T. Young pointed out that the Mesaba’s description of this field ice as being 16 feet thick sounded like the following report published in “Marine Observer”, from H. M. S. “Cleopatra”, re “Mirage on the Gulf of Finland, May 1st, 1919,” (Met. Mag. 56, 40, 1921):

“The ice presented a curious mirage effect, being reflected upwards. When first sighted with the sun on it, it looked very like a continuous line of chalk cliffs in a slight haze; with the sun behind it, small detached pieces appeared as dark blurred objects which might be anything, and might be mistaken for land. On closing, it was found to be floating not more than a foot or so above water.”

Mesaba’s ice report is therefore evidence of the miraging conditions at Titanic’s wreck site, only seven hours before Titanic’s fatal collision, which Bisset also confirms, two hours before the collision, and which Titanic’s lookouts confirm, right up to the moment of the collision.

superior mirage titanic

The miraging field ice may also be what Lord described as a brightening along the western horizon in his 1959 Affidavit:

“At 10.15 p.m. I observed a brightening along the western horizon. After watching this carefully for a few minutes I concluded that it was caused by ice. At 10.21 I personally rang the engine-room telegraph to full speed astern and ordered the helm hard a port. As these orders came into effect the lookout men reported ice ahead. Under the influence of the helm and propeller going astern the ship swung round to E.N.E. by compass (N.E. true). The ship was then stopped surrounded by loose ice and from one-quarter to half-a-mile from the edge of a low ice field. As I could not see any clear place to go through I decided to remain stopped until daylight.

STL049. Exactly; but how large an area would it cover the next morning?
– I suppose about 26 miles long and from 1 to 2 miles wide.

I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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