Ocean Eddies and the Titanic Disaster

April 14, 2021

MILA eddy2

Mila_MODIS_e11 (002)

Photographer: Mila Zinkova
Summary Author: Mila Zinkova

Eddies, or circular currents, play an important role in the ocean's circulation. They can be meters in diameter, as shown above on the top photo, or hundreds of kilometers across (bottom photo), a satellite image that shows plankton blooming in the north Atlantic Ocean, around the area where the Titanic sunk. Note that the plankton outlines currents as well as tongues of water having different temperatures.

Today is the 109th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. Eddies were a significant element in the Titanic's disaster. Not only were eddies responsible for transporting the icebergs and sea ice to the wreck site, but they could have played a decisive role in the inaction of the California, a nearby steamer. Californian's second officer, Herbert Stone, testified that the steamer he was watching was changing her bearing and eventually steamed away. During the Titanic inquiry, Stone stated:  "A steamer that is in distress does not steam away from you, my Lord."

On the other hand, the fourth officer of the Titanic, Joseph Boxhall, who was watching the Californian from the sinking Titanic, testified that at first the Californian was approaching and later leaving the stricken liner. For many years, authors writing about the Titanic and Titanic disaster investigators have struggled to figure out how it was possible for two stopped steamers to move towards and/or away from each other. In 2018 I published an article, in which I suggested that the Californian could have drifted in an eddy. In fact, both Titanic and Californian could have drifted in different sets of currents and/or different eddies. Eddies are very common in the area where the Titanic went down, and it's possible they were present on that fateful night. Here's a video to see the eddies in motion. 

Another confirmation of an unusual drift comes from the position of the Carpathia (the rescue ship). When the Californian's officers first saw the Titanic she was located south-southeast of the Californian. However, in the morning the Carpathia was located south of the Californian. If the Californian, the Titanic and the Titanic's lifeboats were drifting in the same set of currents, the Carpathia should have been located south-southeast of Californian, just as the Titanic was a few hours before.

Top photo taken on September 8, 2018. Bottom photo is a MODIS satellite image taken on March 9, 2002.