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There has been a titanic amount of media coverage about the sinking of RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage 100 years ago, but I have seen no mention of recent research suggesting that freak atmospheric conditions may have played a part in the disastrous loss of more than 1,500 lives.
The events leading up to the disaster began on 4 January 1912, when the moon’s orbit brought it unusually close to Earth just as Earth was at its closest to the sun. This conjunction caused the highest tide in 1,700 years, refloating a mass of Greenland icebergs that had grounded on the Labrador coast.
The huge volume of ice and melt-water swelled the Labrador current, which carried the bergs much further south than usual, into the warmer waters of the gulf stream. Cold, dense air above the freezing current caused light to bend abnormally downwards, around the curvature of the Earth, lifting up a false horizon capable of camouflaging a large iceberg.
This effect, known as a “superior mirage”, is common in cold water areas. It would have appeared to Titanic’s lookouts like a slight haze on the horizon, revealing the iceberg too late.
This explanation has been put forward by British historian Tim Maltin after he studied the log books of 75 ships that were in the same area of the North Atlantic in April 1912. He found records of miraging and abnormal refraction, plus an unusually high atmospheric pressure, which would have compounded these effects and made the night look deceptively clear.
But none of this explains why Titanic was steaming at full speed on a moonless night despite warnings of many large icebergs in the area, or why the captain had cancelled a lifeboat drill scheduled for the previous day.
He may have been recklessly trying to break the speed record for an Atlantic crossing or at least trying to ensure that the ship was not late for its scheduled triumphal arrival in New York.