On April 14th, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The collision occurred at 11:40 PM ships time, and by 2:20 AM the ship broke apart and foundered with over a thousand people still on board. Of the 2,224 people on board just over 700 were rescued.

There have been a number of theories about the iceberg; where did it come from, why were there so many icebergs in the area at the time, how big was it, and so on. It has become general belief that the number of ice bergs in the area was exceptionally large. However, a new paper released a few minutes ago suggests that this is not the case, and also questions some of the other theories about ice berg calving that year are also now in question.

The paper is “Iceberg risk in the Titanic year of 1912: was it exceptional?” by Grant R. Bigg and David J. Wilton of the University of Sheffield, published in the journal Weather.

Yes, there were a lot of icebergs that year, about 2.5 times above the average year. Iceberg experts focus on the number of ice bergs that float south of 48 degrees N latitude, and during the iceberg season of 1912 it is estimated that 1038 of the things passed that line. So that’s a lot, but according to this research, it is less than the 90th percentile for the century-plus period for which data are available.

Importantly, the number of icebergs in the region has gone up recently. Figure 4 from the paper shows the erratic annual data, with a clear increase in the last several decades.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.14.24 AM

One question we might ask is this: How is it that with more icebergs floating around in this major shipping zone we don’t see more ships sinking? In fact, the International Ice Patrol, which was formed after, and because of, the Titanic disaster, makes the remarkable claim that no ship that has followed procedures and advice of the IIP has been significantly damaged by an iceberg since then.

There are probably a few reasons for this. The main reason is probably the IIP itself, which keeps track of icebergs and provides important information to the ships. Another set of reasons probably has to do with the technology of seeing icebergs and communicating about them. This makes the iceberg situation along the Labrador and Newfoundland coast a microcosm of a larger question we have these days about the effects of climate change. There has been a recent and rather heated debate about this. Roger Pielke Junior has produced a number of studies that seem to show that there has been no effect of climate change on the outcome of natural disasters such as major storms. There are a number of reasons that this research is probably wrong, including the fact that the effects of major storms has increased in some cases because of factors directly linked to climate change. The most obvious of this includes increased sea surface temperatures powering up a handful of otherwise already large hurricanes to cause more of a punch (eg. Katrina, Haiyan, Sandy) and increased sea levels resulting in higher storm surges. But also missing from Pielke’s analysis is the fact that some of the effect, or more exactly, the cost, of such events is prepaid in the form of preparation. New York City was aware of the fact that their subways were likely to flood when Superstorm Sandy came along (which itself may have been an effect of climate change due to increased sea surface temperatures and unusual steering winds resulting from Arctic Amplification effects) so they were able to shut down or otherwise secure certain systems. For that to happen there needed to be an ongoing system of making predictions about tropical storms. Similarly, rebuilding or retrofitting infrastructure to handle larger storm surges is something we are going to see all along coastal areas. Also, properties that may have been high value because of their sea-side location in many areas now have very little residential or commercial value because they have to be disoccupied.

In the case of North Atlantic Icebergs, ships don’t run into them because we have spent time, effort, and money to not let that happen, every year since the Titanic. If one did a Pielke style analysis of the effects of icebergs in the region it might look like this:

A Pielke Style Analysis of the effects of climate change via iceberg-ship collisions

A Pielke Style Analysis of the effects of climate change via iceberg-ship collisions

And that would be misleading.

The current budget of the IIP is just under 6.0 million dollars a year, which doesn’t seem like much given the benefits, but to this we must add the additional costs of ships following suboptimal routes because of iceberg threats and the costs of all those technologies and procedures that they follow. The point is, the cost of increased icebergs in the North Atlantic is not zero based on a lack of collisions. It is non-zero and to the extent that there is a correlation between bad iceberg years and costs, it is increased with more icebergs and there are more icebergs.

The researchers carried out a nifty modeling program of iceberg formation in the Titanic year, in part to test some of the ideas previously presented. One of the more interesting ideas was that an exceptionally high tide had lifted the glacial margins more than usual and this caused the production of more icebergs than usual. But this research sowed that the Titanic iceberg came from a part of the Greenland coast that would have been frozen fast during that short interval, so this is unlikely. Also, the increase that year as well as at other times of iceberg formation is thought to be related to a change in weather conditions in Greenland. This is complicated and not well understood, and the subject of work in progress by one of the authors. For now, it appears that relatively warm conditions in the Arctic result in changes in snowfall pattern that affect iceberg formation in the fall, which then propagates to additional icebergs passing south of 48 degrees North latitude over the next few years.

Between the increase in iceberg formation under current warm Arctic conditions and the extreme lack of sea ice in the region which tempts ships north, we can expect there to be more potential contacts between boat and ice over coming years. I’m thinking the International Ice Patrol should get a funding bump. Just in case.


  1. #1 oldebabe
    April 10, 2014

    Very interesting and informative article about icebergs, but what does it change about the cause of the Titanic sinking (which is NOT a theory), and which, silly me, I thought was the subject?

  2. #2 GregH
    April 14, 2014

    “Iceberg risk in the Titanic year of 1912: was it exceptional?”

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    April 14, 2014

    Oldebabe: It puts two or three theories (I discuss two) about the event to rest. But it is also the case that I focus on two ancillary aspects of the research. 1) that iceberg number has increased in recent decades. 2) That this increase has a cost other than ships actually getting sunk by them.