One hundred years after the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912, experts are still debating what caused the tragedy. Now, new research by British historian Tom Maltin points to an unusual optical illusion that may have hidden the iceberg that caused the Titanic’s deadly crash.
Maltin read weather records, testimony from survivors, and the ship’s logs to research his theory. The Titanic, he says, sailed from warm Gulf Stream waters into the freezing Labrador Current. There, the air column was cooling from the bottom up, creating layers of cold air below layers of warmer air. This is called a thermal inversion.
The thermal inversion, Maltin says, caused light to refract, or bend, abnormally downward. The refraction created mirages: Objects appeared higher—and therefore nearer—than they actually were, before a false horizon.
The area between the false horizon and the real horizon appeared as haze. The iceberg was hidden in the haze, so those aboard the Titanic didn’t see it until the ship was about to collide with it. As Titanic First Officer William McMaster Murdoch recalled, “That iceberg came right out of the haze.” But by that time, the Titanic was too close to avoid hitting it.
Shortly before the Titanic hit the iceberg, it sailed into the view of another ship, the Californian. But the refraction of the light made it appear too near and too small to be the Titanic—the largest ship in the world at the time. The Californian signaled the Titanic by Morse lamp, which uses flashes of light to send signals. The Titanic, now in trouble, also signaled the Californian by Morse lamp. But the thermal inversion disrupted the signals and the distress rockets the Titanic shot into the air. The Titanic finally sank at 2:20 a.m. local time on April 15.
Although some experts agree with Maltin’s theory, others say the Titanic sank simply because it ignored several warnings of heavy ice and because it was going too fast in dangerous waters. Whatever the cause, people remain fascinated with the Titanic, and researchers and historians will likely come up with new theories for years to come.