The tragedy of the “unsinkable” Titanic, lost in the cold water of the northern Atlantic Ocean, became part of history and pop-culture. Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the Titanic collided with an iceberg. Six of the waterproof compartments of the ship were damaged and just two hours later the ship sank, with still 1,500 passengers on board.
A new paper by independent weather researcher Mila Zinkova published in the journal Weather suggests that magnetic and electric interferences associated with a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere that night contributed to the Titanic disaster.
Eyewitnesses described very strong northern lights visible in the sky after the Titanic hit the iceberg. James Bisset, second officer of the RMS Carpathia (the ship that would rescue 705 Titanic survivors in the early morning of April 15th) wrote in his log on the night of April 14, 1912: “There was no moon, but the Aurora Borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon.” Survivors also described spotting the northern lights from their lifeboats at around 3 a.m. local time. The glow “arched fanwise across the northern sky, with faint streamers reaching towards the Pole-star,” one survivor wrote.
Northern lights form from solar storms when the sun expels high-speed streams of particles that hurtle toward Earth. As the charged particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere, the energized atmospheric gases start to glow green, red, purple and blue. These charged particles can also interfere with electrical and magnetic signals, causing malfunctions of electronic devices. A solar or geomagnetic storm powerful enough to cause northern lights at the latitude where the Titanic hit the iceberg may also have affected magnetic compasses and the electrical telegraph on board the ship.
Made aware of icefields by other ships traveling the Northern Atlantic route that night, Titanic’s captain Edward John Smith ordered to bypass the most dangerous areas sailing southwards. However, so Zinkova, it is possible that the geomagnetic storm responsible for the northern lights also caused a slight deviation – an error of only 0.5 degrees would have been enough – of the ship’s compass. Instead of avoiding the dangerous icefield, the Titanic sailed straight into it. This could also explain another aspect of the Titanic’s tragedy. The coordinates sent from the sinking Titanic were wrong, and other ships at first searched in the wrong area, arriving at the site of the disaster only hours later.
Geomagnetic storm interference, so Zinkova, also hindered rescue efforts. After realizing the ship couldn’t be saved, Smith ordered the two radio operators on board to send distress signals to nearby vessels. The ocean liner RMS Baltic – one of the ships that responded to the Titanic’s first distress call – reported that radio signals that night were also “freaky” and many messages went unheard, and responses to the Titanic were never received.