Mirage text from 1820 sheds new light on Titanic disaster

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In 1820, polar explorer and scientist William Scoresby published “An account of the Arctic regions with a history and description of the northern whale-fishery, Vol 1” (Constable, Edinburgh, 1820), which became a seminal work in Arctic science. Scoresby was encouraged in his research by Sir Joseph Banks, and a copy of this book still resides in the personal library of the famous Norwegian scientist-explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

Section Five is entitled: “Atmospheric Phenomena, dependent on Reflection and Refraction”, and includes a detailed and technical account of mirages seen in and near ice fields.

Miraging horizon over sea ice © Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute http://blueocean.org/home

Titanic sank in an ice field, surrounded by dozens and dozens of very large icebergs, and next to an icefield 70 miles long and three to twelve miles wide, completely blocking her path to New York.  An idea of the amount of ice in the area where Titanic sank can be grasped from this 1912 chart of Titanic’s crash site, drawn from the ice reports wirelessed by nearby ships:

Chart of the RMS Titanic wreck site showing ships within call by wireless at the time of the collision (Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo)

Scoresby’s observations explain many crucial aspects of why and how the Titanic tragedy occurred, from the haze on the horizon which delayed the sighting of the fatal iceberg, to the distorted distance and visual appearance of the Titanic, which caused both her and her distress rockets to be confused by a nearby ship for strange signals from another vessel.

I am grateful to Professor Andrew T. Young, one of the world’s leading mirage experts, for pointing this text out to me, which is included in his “Annotated bibliography of mirages…”, because he was struck by the resemblance of Scoresby’s observations to those of the Titanic survivors, which he and I have been discussing and modelling for many years.

William Scoresby, FRS FRSE, was an English Arctic explorer, scientist and clergyman, who was born on 5th October 1789 and died on 21st March 1857.

His father, William Scoresby (1760–1829), made a fortune in the Arctic whale fishery and was also the inventor of the barrel crow’s nest.

Scoresby Jnr was chief officer of the whaler Resolution when, on 25 May 1806, he succeeded in reaching 81°30′ N. lat. 19° E. long, which remained for twenty-one years the highest northern latitude attained in the eastern hemisphere. 

From the first, Scoresby worked as an active member and official of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1819, Scoresby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 1820, he published An Account of the Arctic Regions and Northern Whale Fishery, in which he gathers up the results of his own observations, as well as those of previous navigators.

Among other things, Scoresby describes in considerable detail displays of looming and mirages that are clearly Fata Morganas – i.e., phenomena definitely associated with thermal inversions caused by the local presence of ice.

Optical Phenomena of Unequal Refraction by William Scoresby

(Watercolour in the collection of the Whitby Museum, Whitby, Yorkshire)

Scoresby points out several conditions very similar to those observed at the Titanic scene: very calm air and water near the freezing point, and the shielding of ships from the wind on the leeward side of icebergs. He noted that the air temperature was always near the freezing point, regardless of the temperature outside the ice field.

He also gives detailed descriptions of elevated and double (i.e., miraged) apparent horizons that accompanied “a dense appearance in the atmosphere.” The distorted images of ships “had precisely the prospective appearance of ships in a heeling position.”

Like the Titanic event, his observations occurred in the Spring and early Summer months, including April – the well-established superior-mirage season in the Northern Hemisphere. It is also relevant that Scoresby found that these conditions “have usually occurred in the evening or night, after a clear day.” 

Scoresby gives quantitative measurements of the elevations and separations of the double horizons, and the estimates of distances to the loomed horizon. Helpfully, the ships Scoresby observed were at a similar distance to him as that between the Titanic and her nearby would-be rescue ship, the Californian, which failed to come to Titanic’s aid, both as to the actual and apparent distances between those two ships, observed in the abnormally refracting conditions at Titanic’s crash site.

I set out below the key passages of Scorseby’s observations, and place these alongside observations from those involved in the sinking of the Titanic, to show the relevance of Scoresby’s observations to explain those of people who witnessed the terrible tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic on the night of the 14/15th April 1912.

The highlighting of the quotations throughout this essay are my own, for emphasis.

W. Scoresby

An account of the Arctic regions with a history and description of the northern whale-fishery, Vol 1 (Constable, Edinburgh, 1820).


Atmospheric Phenomena, dependent on Reflection and Refraction.


W. Scoresby: “There are several phenomena of the atmosphere caused by refraction, which deserve to be noticed. Under certain circumstances, all objects seen on the horizon, seem to be lifted above it a distance of 2 to 4, or more minutes of altitude, or so far extended in height above their natural dimensions. Ice, land, ships, boats, and other objects, when thus enlarged and elevated, are said to loom. The lower parts of looming objects, are sometimes connected with the sensible horizon, by an apparent fibrous or columnar extension of their parts, which columns are always perpendicular to the horizon: at other times, they appear to be quite lifted into the air, a void space being seen between them and the horizon. This phenomenon is observed most frequently on or before an easterly wind, and is generally considered as indicative of such.”

The sinking of the Titanic was also followed by an easterly wind at her crash-site. The Almerian, stopped in the same ice field in which Titanic sank,on the same night on which Titanic sank, and less than 30 miles due West of Titanic’s wreck site, reports that a three knot Easterly wind sprang up with the dawn, and that the air that morning was two degrees warmer than the freezing sea:

Almerian 8.23am Monday 15th April at 41.48N, 50,24W 15th ATS (and GMN) Wind east 3, air 33, sea 31. “Sunday 14th: Mod to light breeze. Smooth Sea. Clear. Monday 15th: Light breeze & calms. Smooth. In among pack-ice” 

W. Scoresby: “A most extraordinary appearance of the Foreland or Charles’s Island, Spitzbergen, occurred on the 16th of July 1814. While sailing to the southward along the coast, with an easterly wind, I observed what appeared to be a mountain, in the form of a slender but elevated monument. I was surprised that I had never seen it before; but was more astonished when I saw, not far distant, a prodigious and perfect arch, thrown across a valley of above a league in breadth. The neighbouring mountains disclosed the cause, by exhibiting an unnatural elevation, with the columnar structure of looming objects. Presently, the scene was changed; the mountains along the whole coast, assumed the most fantastic forms; the appearance of castles with lofty spires, towers and battlements, would, in a few minutes, be converted into a vast arch or romantic bridge. These varied and sometimes beautiful metamorphoses, naturally suggested the reality of fairy descriptions; for the air was perfectly transparent, the contrast of snow and rocks was quite distinct, even in the substance of the most uncommon phantasms, though examined with a powerful telescope, and every object seemed to possess every possible stability. I never before observed a phenomenon so varied or so amusing. The land was not alone affected by this peculiar refraction, since every object between the N. E. and S. E. points of the compass, was more or less deformed by it. A mass of ice on the horizon, appeared of the height of a cliff, and the prismatic structure of its front, suggested the idea of basaltic columns.”

The field ice barrier near Titanic’s crash site also appeared like a cliff, even though we know that in reality it was only a few feet deep, floating only one or two feet above the surface of the sea, because after Titanic’s collision the Californian pushed her way across the ice field, twice.

At 2pm on the afternoon before Titanic’s collision, the Mesaba had also been heading about west, when she arrived at this same ice barrier, 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.”

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

Note how the miraging field ice looks like the “basaltic columns” described by Scoresby

W. Scoresby: “It may be remarked, that these phenomena took place on a clear evening, after an uncommonly warm afternoon.”

The miraging at Titanic’s crash site also occurred on a clear night, after a fine day. Survivor accounts of the warm sun on the Sunday before the collision are corroborated by the log of the Paula, at noon on 14th April 1912, in 41.58N, 49.36W, (about 15 miles NE of Titanic’s crash site, and on the day of her collision) who recorded Wind NNE2, Sea 1 degree, Air 2.3 degrees “After 9.30am, cloudless sky, fine weather”.

W. Scoresby: “Other peculiar effects of refraction I have observed, of which some instances shall be noticed. At 6 P. M. of the 13th of May 1814, when the ship I commanded lay beset in the ice, the wind, which for some days had blown fresh from the N. W. veered to the S. E. and subsided. A dense appearance in the atmosphere, arose to the southward of us, and advanced with the wind towards the N. W. When it came to the S. W. of us, I first noticed that the horizon, under this apparent density, was considerably elevated; and that a separation of seven minutes extent of the altitude, showed the division of the true and refracted horizons. This disunion in the horizon, was very similar in appearance to the natural horizon, when viewed through the horizon glass of a sextant, having a considerable index error. Viewed from the mast-head, the refracted horizon extended about 30° farther westward than when seen from the deck. It had the appearance of a line drawn nearly parallel to the true horizon, distant from it 7 minutes, with an open space between. Two ships lying beset about fourteen miles off, the hulls of which, before the density came on, could not be wholly seen, seemed now from the mast head, not to be above half the distance, as the horizon was visible considerably beyond them.”

The night the Titanic sank, she was 10-15 miles away from the Californian and would normally have appeared on the horizon, somewhat “hull-down”.  But in the miraging conditions in the ice field, which caused an abnormally refracting horizon to be raised up  behind Titanic, she appeared to be only 4 or 5 miles away, within the horizon, and thus appeared like a smaller ship nearby, instead of the largest liner in the world much further away:

Lord [Captain of the Californian]: “She [Titanic] came and lay at half-past 11, alongside of us until, I suppose, a quarter past, within 4 miles of us. We could see everything on her quite distinctly, see her lights. We signalled her, at half-past 11, with the Morse lamp. She did not take the slightest notice of it. That was between half-past 11 and 20 minutes to 12. We signalled her again at 10 minutes past 12, half-past 12, a quarter to 1 o’clock. We have a very powerful Morse lamp. I suppose you can see that about 10 miles, and she was about 4 miles off, and she did not take the slightest notice of it. When the second officer came on the bridge, at 12 o’clock, or 10 minutes past 12, I told him to watch that steamer, which was stopped, and I pointed out the ice to him; told him we were surrounded by ice; to watch the steamer that she did not get any closer to her.

Q267. And in your opinion, what sort of a ship was she?

Lord: She was a moderately big, passenger steamer probably. But nothing like the Titanic or any large White Star or Cunard liner. She might have had a few passengers aboard, but she wasn’t steaming like a big ship.

Then I went on the bridge again, to the third officer. And this ship was coming along. I said, ‘Wireless said he’d only got the Titanic.’ I said, ‘that’s not the Titanic,’ and he said, ‘Oh that looks like a passenger ship to me.’ But I said, ‘She doesn’t to me. I shall go along and see Sparks.’ I went along. He came to the door. The open door, with the things on his head, and I pointed out the ship. I said, ‘There’s a steamer coming along, what (ships) have you got?’ He said, ‘I’ve only got the Titanic.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that’s not her.’ ‘No, I’m sure it’s not. Not big enough or fast enough for the Titanic.’

Q297. And she stopped there. Somewhere about half past eleven. How close would she be?

Lord: She stopped. Well, I suppose, I said she was about five miles, didn’t I?

Q298. And you couldn’t, or could you, have been mistaken about the largest ship in the world?

Lord: I’m positive it wasn’t the largest ship in the world, or a large passenger steamer at all.

Due to the abnormally raised horizon behind the Titanic, similar to that noticed by Scoresby in his account, Titanic appeared to be nearer to the viewer than she really was. The 883 feet long Titanic, about 10-15 miles away and steaming along at 22 knots, had therefore appeared like a ship about the same size as the 447 feet long Californian, about 5 miles away, and steaming along at 11 knots.

This can be explained by the following image, which shows two ships of the same size, and yet the ship which appears nearer also appears to be smaller:

The strongest cues to distance on the sea is the height of the horizon, relative to the object you are viewing and the clarity of the object viewed. Essentially, the extraordinarily clear air and the abnormal refraction on the horizon that night altered the distance cues and caused the constant angular size of the Titanic to appear to change.

This distance confusion was further compounded by the miraging conditions, which had the effect of stretching Titanic’s hull in the vertical direction, in a similar way to the ships observed by Scoresby:

W. Scoresby: “The appearance of these ships was singular. Their hulls were much enlarged and elongated, and their masts very much shortened. They had precisely the prospective appearance of ships in a heeling position.”  

Scoresby’s account of the miraging ships appearing to be in a healing position describes what Gibson, observing Titanic through binoculars from the deck of the Californian saw when he said: “She looks rather to have a big side out of the water.”

Gibson’s testimony at the British Inquiry:

7636. Now I wish you would just try and tell us what you mean when you say that later on, when you looked at her through the glasses, you thought she had a list, or you thought her lights looked queer; what was there about her lights to make you think that?
– Her sidelights seemed to be higher out of the water.

7637. The sidelights seemed to be higher out of the water?
– Yes.

7638. Do you mean that there was any time when you saw both sidelights?
– Her red sidelight.

7639. And you say that watching her, you thought that her red sidelight did not stay at the same level, but got higher?
– Yes.

7640. That was your impression was it?
– Yes.

The Commissioner:
That would make a list to starboard?

7641. (The Solicitor-General.) Is that why you thought she had got a list to starboard?
– Yes.

7642. You thought her red light was rising out of the water, and so you assumed that the other side was dropping?
– Yes.

7643. Did you call the Second Officer’s attention to that?
– Yes; he remarked it at the time; he told me to look through the glasses at it.

7650. Just tell us. You say the Second Officer spoke to you about it; what did he say?
– He said, “Have a, look at her now, Gibson; she seems to look queer now.”

7651. You have not said anything about her port light yet, you know; did he say anything more?
– No; I told him, “She looks rather to have a big side out of the water.”

7658. Had you noticed that she looked queer before he spoke to you about it?
– No.

7659. You had not. Then you looked through the glasses?
– Yes.

7660. And when you looked through the glasses what was it you saw? What was it that struck you?
– That she seemed, to be heavily listed to starboard.

7661. You were looking at her port light?
– Yes.

7662. What did you see about her port light?
– It seemed to be higher out of the water than what it was before.

7667. Did not you, say anything to him about what you noticed, about her red light?
– I said she seemed to have a big side out of the water.

7668. Did he agree with you or did he not?
– Yes.

7669. He did agree with you?
– Yes.

In fact, from when Gibson began observing Titanic at 12.15am, until she foundered at 2.20am, she carried a list to port, so her port light was in fact only sinking, not rising.  The true height of her port light, in feet above sea level, can be seen in the following chart:

This towering of Titanic’s hull in the Superior miraging conditions in the ice field the night she sank also made her lights appear not to go down to the water’s edge, causing observers on the Californian to mistake the largest passenger liner in the world – normally lit up down to the water – for a tramp steamer:

James Gibson, Apprentice, Californian:   

7728. (The Commissioner.) What was it made you think it was a tramp steamer? You saw nothing but the lights?

– Well, I have seen nearly all the large passenger boats out at sea, and there was nothing at all about it to resemble a passenger boat.

7729. What is it you expected to see?

– A passenger boat is generally lit up from the water’s edge.

This photograph of Titanic at dusk at Cherbourg shows how her hull lights would normally have appeared to go down to the water’s edge.

But by stretching the bottom of her hull upwards from the sea surface and compressing the top part of her hull, which Scoresby referred to as making the vessels he was observing have “precisely the prospective appearance of ships in a heeling position”, Titanic looked like a tramp steamer in the superior mirage conditions that night, appearing to show “a big side out of the water”:

A distorting ship in a superior mirage, photograph by Pekka Parviainen

Just like Scoresby’s ships, Titanic appeared both nearer, due to the raised, abnormally refracting horizon beyond her, and also to be healing over, due to the towering of her hull.


This raising up of Titanic’s hull also made her distress rockets, exploding high up in the normally refracting, warmer air above the inversion, appear relatively low, as if they came from a ship far beyond the Titanic:

7921. Tell me what you said to the Chief Officer?
– I have remarked at different times that these rockets did not appear to go very high; they were very low lying; they were only about half the height of the steamer’s masthead light and I thought rockets would go higher than that.

7922. Well, anything else?
– But that I could not understand why if the rockets came from a steamer beyond this one, when the steamer altered her bearing the rockets should also alter their bearings.
[In the Californian was altering her heading, not the Titanic altering her bearing.]

7923. That pointed to this, that the rockets did come from this steamer?
– It does, although I saw no actual evidence of their being fired from the deck of the steamer except in one case.

7924. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Which is the one case?
– One rocket that I saw that appeared to be much brighter than the others. [Variable refraction]

7930. I suppose, at any rate, now you have not any doubt but that that ship which was showing you the navigation lights was the ship which was showing you these series of rockets?
– Except, as I say, that they were very low; they did not appear to go high enough to me.

W. Scoresby: “Again, on the 16th of the same month, the ship I commanded being similarly situated with regard to the ice, the phenomenon was repeated, with some alteration. The refracted portion of the horizon appeared again in the south-east quarter: it was at first direct and undivided; but, in a short time, it separated in several places, and each distinct portion was inclined at a small angle towards the true horizon. The effect of refraction was six minutes of altitude. A particular haziness was evident to the east and north of the broken horizon”.

At night the miraging ice barrier Titanic was fast approaching, apparently standing up like a cliff at the horizon, appeared like an intensifying of the haze along the miraging horizon to Titanic’s lookouts, despite the clear night, with the berg appearing too late, as “a dark mass,

that came through that haze”:

Reginald Lee, Titanic Lookout:

2401. What sort of a night was it?
– A clear, starry night overhead, but at the time of the accident there was a haze right ahead.

2402. At the time of the accident a haze right ahead?
– A haze right ahead – in fact it was extending more or less round the horizon. There was no moon.

2403. And no wind?
– And no wind whatever, barring what the ship made herself.

2404. Quite a calm sea?
– Quite a calm sea.

2405. Was it cold?
– Very, freezing.

2408. Did you notice this haze which you said extended on the horizon when you first came on the look-out, or did it come later?
– It was not so distinct then – not to be noticed. You did not really notice it then – not on going on watch, but we had all our work cut out to pierce through it just after we started. My mate happened to pass the remark to me. He said, “Well; if we can see through that we will be lucky.” That was when we began to notice there was a haze on the water. There was nothing in sight.

2409. You had been told, of course, to keep a careful look-out for ice, and you were trying to pierce the haze as much as you could?
– Yes, to see as much as we could.

2441. (The Attorney-General.) I said 60 ft.; I am told it is about 55 feet. (To the Witness.) Can you give us any idea of the breadth [of the iceberg]? What did it look like? It was something which was above the forecastle?
– It was a dark mass that came through that haze and there was no white appearing until it was just close alongside the ship, and that was just a fringe at the top.

Frederick Fleet, Titanic Lookout:

17245. Now at the time you went into the crow’s-nest, which would be at 10 o’clock on that night, was the sky clear?
– Yes.

17246. The sea we know was very calm?
– The sea calm.

17247. The stars shining?
– Yes.

17248. Could you clearly see the horizon?
– The first part of the watch we could.

17249. The first part of the watch you could?
– Yes.

17250. After the first part of the watch what was the change if any?
– A sort of slight haze.

17251. A slight haze?
– Yes.

17252. Was the haze on the waterline?
– Yes.

17253. It prevented you from seeing the horizon clearly?
– It was nothing to talk about.

17254. It was nothing much, apparently?
– No.

17255. Was this haze ahead of you?
– Yes.

17256. Was it only ahead, did you notice?
– Well, it was only about 2 points on each side.

17257. When you saw this haze did it continue right up to the time of your striking the berg?
– Yes.

17263. Did you say anything to your mate about it?
– Well, I told him there was a slight haze coming.

17264. Is that Lee?
– Lee.

17265. At the time that you noticed the haze was there anything in sight?
– No.

17266. Did it interfere with your sight ahead of you?
– No.

17267. Could you see as well ahead and as far ahead after you noticed the haze as you could before?
– It did not affect us, the haze.

17268. It did not affect you?
– No, we could see just as well.

George Symons, on Titanic’s Lookout before Fleet and Lee, also testified to seeing the same ‘haze’, despite the clear night:

11983. While you were on the look-out, up to 10 o’clock, what sort of a night was it?
– Pretty clear, Sir, a fine night, rather hazy; if anything a little hazy on the horizon, but nothing to speak of.

11984. Would you describe it as a very clear night?
– Yes.

The Commissioner:
I mean the evidence before and after the accident is that the sky was perfectly clear, and therefore if the evidence of the haze is to be accepted, it must have been some extraordinary natural phenomenon…

With that remark in 1912, the Wreck Commissioner came very close to solving the mystery of why Titanic, with a highly experienced crew, keeping a sharp lookout for ice, crashed into a large iceberg on a clear night, and why she and her distress rockets were not recognised by the nearby Californian.

Sadly, the lookouts were not believed, and the Wreck Commissioner was not familiar with Scoresby’s observations of miraging haze caused by abnormal refraction in the ice region, observed 100 years earlier.

In fact the lookouts’ descriptions of haze on the horizon, despite the perfectly clear night, is absolutely consistent with miraging conditions.

In his essay, “On the temperature, fogs and mirages of the river St. Lawrence,” published in Transactions of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec 3, 1–45 (1832), W. Kelly states:

“There was generally with the mirage an appearance of a fog bank on the horizon . . . . The air within the horizon was at the same time perfectly clear.”

As Dr. Andrew T. Young, one of the world’s leading atmospheric refraction experts explains:

“The superior mirage is often associated with an appearance of “fog” at the horizon, because one sees much farther than usual in the mirage strip below the “false horizon””.  

W. Scoresby: “On the 28th of April 1811, I had an opportunity of ascertaining the exact effect of a singular refraction, by the alteration produced in the distance of the visible horizon. A ship, the Henrietta of Whitby, bearing easterly from us, lay beset at such a distance, that her hull was not visible; and when viewed from an elevation of ninety feet, with a good telescope, half her lower masts were intercepted by the ice on the horizon. Now, at the elevation from which this ship was seen, the horizon, under common circumstances, would be nine miles distant; and from the knowledge of the dimensions of her masts, I estimated the portion of the hull and masts intercepted by the horizon, at about 22 feet; consequently, her distance beyond the horizon must have been at least 4 ½ miles, and her distance from us not less than 13 ½. The day had been almost cloudless, the sun powerful. At 11 p. m., I was informed by the officer of the watch, that the ship to the eastward of us, appeared to be forced by the ice upon her beam ends, or into a heeling posture. I immediately ascended the deck, and having cleaned the glasses of a good telescope, I hastened to the masthead. I at once attributed the cause of the deception to unequal refraction. This ship, which, two hours before, was 4½ miles beyond the visible horizon, now appeared as far within it, and was in every respect deformed like the ships above mentioned. The ice between us and the Henrietta, was compact and motionless; in confirmation of which, a few hours afterwards, we found she had resumed her former appearance; that is, she had apparently returned to her situation beyond the horizon. Now, the distance of the Henrietta, 13 ½ miles, as before determined, added to about 4 miles that the horizon was visible beyond her, gives 17½ miles for its distance, which is greater by 8 ½ miles, than we derive from estimation, on the principle of the earth’s curvature, with an elevation of 90 feet.

The horizon on this occasion, between the east and north, though continuous, appeared curiously undulated. There appeared a difference of nearly a quarter of a degree, between the elevation of the highest and lowest portions of the circumferential boundary.”

I have occasionally observed other effects of atmospheric refraction, such as produce an inverted image of distant ships ; an elevation of the bow or stern, and a peculiar distortion of the masts; a division of a ship in the middle, and a lengthening of the hull, &c. ; but the preceding having been more attentively studied in connection with the state of the atmosphere, they are more satisfactory, and consequently more worthy of particular detail.

From the whole of these facts, the following remarks may be deduced:

1st, That the curious refractions of the atmosphere in the polar regions, as far as they have been observed, have usually occurred in the evening or night, after a clear day.”

2d, That they are most frequent on the commencement or approach of easterly winds. And”,

3d, That they are, probably, occasioned by the commixture, near the surface of the land or sea, of two streams of air of different temperatures,…”

Not only do Scoresby’s observations in his book explain how the Titanic appeared both nearer and distorted to the Californian, and the strange haze the lookouts observed on a clear night, just before the fatal collision, but also all of Scoresby’s above conditions for miraging were present the night the Titanic sank.

At Titanic’s wreck site approximately 25 large icebergs between 150 and 200 feet tall, and dozens and dozens of smaller bergs, on every point of the compass, shielded the freezing, still air around the bergs and field ice from the warmer winds blowing over the 10-15 degrees Gulf Stream waters nearby.

Captain Rostron of the rescue ship Carpathia, described the field ice at Titanic’s wreck site as follows:

“…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 dozens and dozens of very large 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 Titanic’s surviving 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.”

The sharpness of the boundary between the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the cold water of the Labrador Current and its proximity to Titanic’s wreck site was recorded after the disaster by the SS Minia who, whilst drifting and collecting bodies near Titanic’s wreck site, noted in her log: “Northern edge of Gulf Stream well defined. Water changed from 36 to 56 [degrees Fahrenheit] in half mile”:

Log extract from the SS Minia

The warm air above the Gulf Stream waters blew over the freezing waters of the Labrador Current and field ice and icebergs at Titanic’s crash site, trapping cold air between the sea and the level of the top of the icebergs towering 200 ft above the surface of the sea.

This is called a thermal inversion, where warm air sits above colder air below it. Thermal inversions create abnormal refraction and Superior Mirages, known as cold water mirages.

First Class passenger Philipp Edmund Mock observed from Lifeboat Number 11 the warm smoke rising from the sinking liner, up through the freezing air near the sea, until it met air warmer than itself above the inversion, which caused it to then not be able to rise any higher, so making it flatten out at the top of the inversion:

“We were probably a mile away when the Titanic’s lights went out.  I last saw the ship with her stern high in the air going down.  After the noise I saw a huge column of black smoke slightly lighter than the sky rising high into the sky and then flattening out at the top like a mushroom.”

Other ships in the area where Titanic sank, in April 1912, also noted miraging and abnormal refraction near the ice.

On 10th April 1912, the Deutschland, out of coal and drifting in the ice where the Titanic would later meet her end, recorded the following in her log:

Extract from the log book of the SS Deutschland, out of coal and drifting near Titanic

Niagara  also recorded seeing miraging on the afternoon of the 12th April, whilst in the same area:

Extracts from the Greenwich Mean Noon Observations form of the S.S. Niagara

Further evidence of abnormal refraction in the area that night comes from the log of the Wilson Line steamer Marengo, bound from New York to Hull under the command of Captain G. W. Owen.  On the night of the collision and sinking of the Titanic on the 14/15th April 1912 she was in the same longitude as the Titanic and only one degree south, and her log records both the clear, starlit night and the great refraction on the horizon:

Extracts from the log book of the S.S. Marengo

Just as the miaraging conditions had caused the Titanic to appear to be only five miles away from the Californian that night, when she was in fact 10-15 miles away, so the Californian appeared to those on the Titanic that night to be equally close, as Titanic survivor Lawrence Beesley explains:

The…vessel was a small steamer some few miles ahead on the port side…Mr. Boxhall states that he and Captain Smith saw her quite plainly some five miles away, and could distinguish the masthead lights and a red port light. They at once hailed her with rockets and Morse electric signals, to which Boxhall saw no reply, but Captain Smith and stewards affirmed they did. The second and third officers saw the signals sent and her lights, the latter from the lifeboat of which he was in charge. Seaman Hopkin [sic Quartermaster Hitchens] testified that he was told by the captain to row for the light; and we in boat 13 certainly saw it in the same position and rowed towards it for some time. But notwithstanding all the efforts made to attract its attention, it drew slowly away and the lights sank below the horizon. [This was in fact the variable refraction reducing in magnitude, lowering the miraging horizon beyond Californian, which ship in fact remained at rest all night.]

               The pity of it! So near, and so many people waiting for the shelter its decks could have given so easily. It seems impossible to think that this ship ever replied to the signals; those who said so must have been mistaken. The United States Senate Committee in its report does not hesitate to say that this unknown steamer and the Californian are identical, and that the failure on the part of the latter to come to the help of the Titanic is culpable negligence. There is undoubted evidence that some of the crew on the Californian saw our rockets; but it seems impossible to believe that the captain and officers knew of our distress and deliberately ignored it. Judgment on the matter had better be suspended until further information is forthcoming.

If Beesley had read Scoresby, he would have had that further information, explaining not only how Californian misread Titanic, but also why the Titanic collision occurred in the first place: both the accident and the tragedy was caused by abnormal refraction in the ice region.

Further reading:

If you would like to learn more about mirages and how they caused the Titanic tragedy, then please read my book, Titanic: A Very Deceiving Night.

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