Did a solar flare sink the Titanic? Study suggests space weather may have been responsible for tragedy

According to the study, a geomagnetic storm was present during the period around the Titanic’s disaster that may have impacted navigation and communication


                            Did a solar flare sink the Titanic? Study suggests space weather may have been responsible for tragedy
(Getty Images)

The Titanic struck an iceberg in April 1912, and a new study now suggests that space weather, and solar flare, in particular, may have contributed to the sinking of the ship by interfering with compasses and radio equipment. Mila Zinkova, an independent researcher from the US, explains that ejection of charged particles from the Sun may have caused the crew to make adjustments that led the Titanic along a slightly different course, and this may have put it on the collision course with the iceberg. 

“The Titanic struck an iceberg at 2340 ship time on April 14, 1912 (0310 UTC, April 15) in light winds and a relatively calm sea state. 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. The rescue ship Carpathia received this wrong position, but somehow miraculously streamed directly to the Titanic’s lifeboats. Both the error and correction may have been caused by the effect of space weather,” writes Zinkova, a retired computer programmer from San Francisco, California, in the journal Weather. She adds, “It is considered here that a significant space weather event, in this instance a geomagnetic storm, was present during the period around the Titanic’s disaster, with some impacts upon navigation and communication.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes a geomagnetic storm as a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere that occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth. They are caused by bursts of radiation and charged particles emitted from the Sun. According to the author, geomagnetic storms interact with the upper atmosphere and may have a detrimental impact on communication and navigation systems, even with the more rudimentary technology of 1912. Such severe space weather from solar activity presents a real hazard to technology and can create some dangerous situations in many aspects of modern human life, she explains in the report.

The analysis shows that a moderate to strong geomagnetic storm was in effect in the North Atlantic at the time of the disaster. Zinkova acknowledges that there are many uncertainties on if and to what degree it affected the meteorological components and the compasses, but argues that if it did, it could have affected all aspects of the tragedy. This includes the collision with the iceberg, the navigation errors, the failed communications, and the rescue operations. “A negligible compass error, which might have resulted from the storm, could have placed the Titanic on the collision course. The geomagnetic storm might have been partly responsible for the incorrect calculation of the Titanic’s SOS position in both direct and indirect ways by influencing the compass, and by adding to the stress level of the navigators who performed the calculations,” writes Zinkova. 

A negligible compass error, which might have resulted from the geomagnetic storm, could have placed the Titanic on the collision course, says the analysis (Getty Images)

The researcher argues that an idea of the strength of the geomagnetic storm on the fateful night when the Titanic sank comes from eyewitness testimony, which says that the northern lights were seen on that night. Also known as the aurora borealis, these displays are created when charged particles from the Sun interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. “NOAA states that during a moderate geomagnetic storm, an Aurora is typically seen at 55°N geomagnetic latitude. During strong geomagnetic storm, Aurora is typically seen at 50°N geomagnetic latitude. Therefore, it appears that on the night of the disaster, the Titanic survivors had experienced a moderate to a strong geomagnetic storm,” the findings state.

Zinkova argues that in the Titanic era, a compass was the most important navigational instrument. The geomagnetic storm that resulted in the disturbances recorded during the night could have affected the compasses of nearby ships, she emphasizes. “If Titanic’s compass error were only 0.5°, she would have been off her course for around 9 m over 1 km of the run. This apparently insignificant error could have made the difference between colliding with the iceberg and avoiding it,” she writes. 

However, compass errors may have also saved lives. The analysis says that the rescue ship Carpathia received the wrong SOS position. “Thus, she was going to miss the Titanic’s lifeboats for more than six nautical miles (more than 11 km). Worse yet heavy pack ice located between the wrong SOS position and Carpathia could have endangered Carpathia passengers and crew,” it explains. However, the Carpathia did not miss the lifeboats and did not collide with the pack ice, and it navigated straight to the lifeboats. “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. Therefore, a possible combined compass error could have been one of the factors that contributed to the successful rescue of the Titanic survivors. The light from the aurora may also have been beneficial to the rescue operations,” the author emphasizes.

An idea of the strength of the geomagnetic storm on the fateful night when the Titanic sank comes from eyewitness testimony, which says that the northern lights were seen on that night. These displays are created when charged particles from the Sun interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere (Getty Images)

The other impact of the geomagnetic storm upon the Titanic rescue operation was wireless communication. According to the report, the Titanic used the ship frequency of 500kHz to send distress messages, a wavelength of 600 meter but could switch to 1000kHz. The researcher explains that geomagnetic storms may disrupt wireless communication through the addition of electric charge to the “D regions of the ionosphere, about 80-90 km in altitude, and corresponding to the lower level of the aurora.” This effect may enhance distant communication due to wave reflection, but absorption occurs at higher frequencies, and further radio static and interference may occur near the aurora, reveals analysis. 

“On the night of April 14/15, 1912, communication problems were reported. The Baltic Marconi operators described the radio signals as ‘freaky.’ A few Marconi operators working in the area of the disaster reported atmospherics and weak signals. The Baltic could not hear the transmissions by the Mount Temple but had no difficulties communicating with Virginia, which was farther away,” says Zinkova. A few more examples are cited in the study. When the Mount Temple responded to the Titanic’s SOS, for example, Titanic’s Marconi operator Jack Phillips did not get the call, he only knew that somebody was calling. Another steamer the La Provence could not hear the Titanic while she had no difficulties hearing the Olympic, which was around 500miles (around 800km) farther away than the Titanic was.

According to the researcher, the official report of the Titanic sinking suggested amateur radio enthusiasts had caused interference, by jamming the airwaves, and so prevented the accurate dissemination of emergency signals to other ships in the vicinity. “However, at the time they had incomplete knowledge of the influence that geomagnetic storms may have on the ionosphere and disruption to communication. It is proposed here that the ongoing moderate to strong geomagnetic storm near the aurora had a negative impact upon the receipt of accurate SOS signals by nearby vessels, as well as interference from amateur radio operators,” Zinkova concludes.

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