Did the Titanic Sink Because of an Optical Illusion?

New research may have found the reason why the ship struck an iceberg: light refraction

Charles Floyd

An unusual optical phenomenon explains why the Titanic struck an iceberg and received no assistance from a nearby ship, according to new research by British historian Tim Maltin. Atmospheric conditions in the area that night were ripe for super refraction, Maltin found. This extraordinary bending of light causes miraging, which, he discovered, was recorded by several ships in the area. He says it also prevented the Titanic’s lookouts from seeing the iceberg in time and the freighter Californian from identifying the ocean liner and communicating with it. A 1992 British government investigation suggested that super refraction may have played a role in the disaster, but that possibility went unexplored until Maltin mined weather records, survivors’ testimony and long-forgotten ships’ logs. His findings—presented in his new book, A Very Deceiving Night, and the documentary film Titanic’s Final Mystery, premiering on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. on April 15—are distilled here:

1. Thermal Inversion

thermal inversion
(Charles Floyd)

The Titanic was sailing from Gulf Stream waters into the frigid Labrador Current, where the air column was cooling from the bottom up, creating a thermal inversion: layers of cold air below layers of warmer air. Extraordinarily high air pressure kept the air free of fog.

2. Superior Mirage

superior mirage
(Charles Floyd)

A thermal inversion refracts light abnormally and can create a superior mirage: Objects appear higher (and therefore nearer) than they actually are, before a false horizon. The area between the false horizon and the true one may appear as haze.

3. Iceberg Camouflage

camouflaging the iceberg
(Charles Floyd)

The Californian’s radio operator warned the Titanic of ice. But the moonless night provided little contrast, and a calm sea masked the line between the true and false horizons, camouflaging the iceberg. A Titanic lookout sounded the alarm when the berg was about a mile away—too late.

4. Mistaken Identity

appeared too near and small
(Charles Floyd)

Shortly before the collision, the Titanic sailed into the Californian’s view—but it appeared too near and small to be the great ocean liner. Californian captain Stanley Lord knew the Titanic was the only other ship in the area with a radio, and so concluded this ship did not have one.

5. Morse Lamp

signal the ship by Morse lamp
(Charles Floyd)

Lord said he repeatedly had someone signal the ship by Morse lamp “and she did not take the slightest notice of it.” The Titanic, now in trouble, signaled the Californian by Morse lamp, also to no avail. The abnormally stratified air was distorting and disrupting the signals.

6. Distress Rockets Ignored

fired distress rockets some 600 feet into the air
(Charles Floyd)

The Titanic fired distress rockets some 600 feet into the air—but they appeared to be much lower relative to the ship. Those aboard the Californian, unsure of what they saw, ignored the signals. When the Titanic sank, at 2:20 a.m. April 15, they thought the ship might be simply sailing away.

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