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An Iceberg Might NOT Have Sunk the Titanic After All, a New Study Finds

Photo credit: UniversalImagesGroup - Getty Images
Photo credit: UniversalImagesGroup - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • A new paper wonders if solar flare activity contributed to the sinking of the Titanic.

  • The sun emits gigantic solar storms that can even knock power out on Earth.

  • The right (wrong) kind of solar flare could have interfered with navigation and radios, affecting the Titanic's trajectory as well as rescue response.

Just when we think we know everything there is to know about the Titanic—unsinkable ship, giant iceberg, "I'm the king of the world," etc.—along comes fascinating new research that raises big questions about what really transpired on the fateful night of April 14, 1912. Did a weather fluke from space actually cause the Titanic to sink?

🚢 You love badass ships. So do we. Let's nerd out over them together.

The new study's key finding is that the northern hemisphere was in the grips of a “moderate to severe” magnetic storm that night, which could have altered the Titanic’s navigational readings, affecting both its planned course and the information the crew shared about their location during SOS signals.

The idea is pretty simple. The sun, which is powered by an innate nuclear dynamo that’s burning at millions of degrees, is covered with sunspots. These, in turn, are punctuated by giant explosions the size of the Earth or even larger: solar flares.

“In a matter of just a few minutes they heat material to many millions of degrees and release as much energy as a billion megatons of TNT,” NASA explains. These flares are often caused by magnetic changes or crashes, and their explosions cause magnetic ripples through the solar system.

It makes intuitive sense that the hottest thing in the solar system experiences extreme reactions to swirling and changing magnetic fields. One of the reasons Earth is a successful habitat for living things is that humans have a protective magnetic field that deflects a great deal of solar radiation and cosmic wind that would otherwise blast us into a bald, lifeless, Mars-like planetary surface.

This magnetic field also shifts and changes over time, especially as the magnetic poles move around Earth’s surface. Both animals and humans have learned to rely on the magnetic poles, in the form of manmade devices like compasses as well as animals’ sense for migration and navigation. Compasses, like clocks, must be adjusted to the correct units—like accounting for magnetic north as it moves around in a normal way.

It’s here that we rejoin the Titanic. Paper author Mila Zinkova has published four previous papers about the Titanic in the journal RMetS Weather, exploring a theory that mirages or other visual distortions played a part in the sinking. Now, Zinkova is using weather and space data to explore a different theory.

If a solar flare is severe enough, marked on that historic night by the telltale Aurora Borealis, it can skew the Earth’s magnetic field and wreak havoc with magnetic instruments like compasses. Even today, solar flares interfere with the electrical grid and space traffic, and truly precious file backups may be kept in protective Faraday cages.

Photo credit: Paramount - 20th Century Fox
Photo credit: Paramount - 20th Century Fox

Zinkova posits that the impact on compasses affected the coordinates reported in distress signals. “The Titanic’s Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall worked out the ship’s SOS position. Boxhall’s position was around 13 nautical miles (24 km) off their real position,” Zinkova writes.

But the rescue ship Carpathia likely had the same wrong information. “The compasses of the Carpathia could have been under the influence of the geomagnetic storm for 5.5 hours, before and after she received the Titanic’s SOS, and until she reached the lifeboats,” Zinkova continues. “Therefore, a possible combined compass error could have been one of the factors that contributed to the successful rescue of the Titanic survivors.”

This also points to how localized the solar flare phenomenon was. Ships in a certain radius received scrambled radio calls or missed them altogether. Back on land or even outside of the affected radius, everything seemed normal except when trying to contact or be contacted by the Titanic and other ships near it.

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