An 'Event-Cascade' At Play In Bringing Down The Titanic
April 2, 2012

An ‘Event-Cascade’ At Play In Bringing Down The Titanic

Even centuries after the “unsinkable” ship fell to the bottom of the ocean, scientists, researchers, and historians continue to study what caused the ship´s demise. Among these researchers is Richard Corfield, a science writer who decided to take a look into the mathematics and physics of the sinking of the Titanic.

To unravel this mystery and others, Corfield took a thorough look into the events and settings of April 14, 1912 and has concluded "no one thing conspired to send Titanic to the bottom of the Atlantic."

Immediately following the disaster, investigators began asking questions about the events of the fatal journey. According to these inquiries, carried out in both the US and the UK, there were many factors at play to cause the Titanic to sink. Among these factors was the Titanic´s speed - they were traveling faster than they should have been - Captain Edward J. Smith´s inattention to the presence of icebergs, and a short supply of lifeboats on board.

Additionally, these initial investigations found there were no binoculars in the crows nest and the senior radio operator had not passed on a crucial iceberg warning from the British ship the SS Mesaba.

"Mesaba gave the precise location (42° to 41°, 25' N; 49° to 50°, 30' W) of an area of icebergs that, at the time, approximately 9:40 p.m., was only 50 miles dead ahead of the Titanic," Corfield wrote.

The message sent from the Mesaba was deemed as non-urgent and therefore, not seen by the captain.

Corfield also says the Titanic faced some technical shortfalls as well as operational shortcomings. Even though the ship boasted the latest in technological advancements, some of the material used in the ship wasn´t adequate. For instance, the wrought iron rivets failed, causing the hull and steel plates to come apart.

Citing the work of two metallurgists, Tim Foecke at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, then at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Corfield says the rivets used were made of a lesser quality.

"Foecke and McCarty found that the rivets at the front and rear fifths of the Titanic were made only of 'best' quality iron, not 'best-best,' and had been inserted by hand," wrote Corfield.

These “best” rivets contained material full of “slag," or impure material. These “best” rivets were therefore more likely to pop off under stress.

While these material factors played a large role in helping the ship sink so quickly, Corfield also says weather and climate conditions presented a “event cascade” leading to the ships demise.

The Titanic set sail at a time when the Caribbean was warmer than usual. This created a complex interplay of two surface-water currents as the Gulf Stream intersected with the glacier-filled Labrador Current. Combined with high spring tides three months earlier, these weather conditions created a higher concentration of icebergs in the North Atlantic.

In his article, Corfield lays out each contributing factor of the ship´s failure but in the end, suggests there were too many factors at play to keep the ship afloat.

In conclusion, Corfield writes, “No one thing sent the Titanic to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Rather, the ship was ensnared by a perfect storm of circumstances that conspired her to doom.”

Image Courtesy NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island (NOAA/IFE/URI).