Exactly one hundred years ago today, an ocean liner struck a block of ice and sank in the North Atlantic. The story of the ocean liner has been told hundreds of times. This story is about the block of ice.
The photos you see up top and down on the left are quite possibly the only known photographic evidence of the actual iceberg that was struck by the Titanic. Understandably, nobody had bothered to snap any photographs while the ship was actually sinking, so it's impossible to make an absolutely confirmed positive identification. But both photographs feature the telltale sign of a collision with a ship, and likely a recent one at that: a streak of red paint.
The photo up top was taken by the chief steward of the German ocean liner SS Prinz Adalbert, which on April 15 was sailing through the North Atlantic mere miles away from where the Titanic had sunk the night before. At the time, the chief steward hadn't yet learned of the Titanic's fate, so he wasn't even on the lookout for icebergs. He simply spotted a streak of red paint along the iceberg's base, which most likely meant a ship had collided with it in the last twelve hours.
This next photo was taken by a Captain De Carteret of the Minia, one of a few cable ships - vessels ordinarily used to lay deep sea cables, such as those for telecommunications - sent to the site of the shipwreck to recover corpses and debris. The captain claimed this was the only iceberg in the area, and the red paint was again a clear sign that a ship had recently struck it. There's some disagreement over whether this was the only iceberg in the area, but it certainly seems likely that something had hit it, and the odds are good that that something was the Titanic.
If you were to trace the story of the Titanic to its earliest human origins, you couldn't really go much further back than 1907, when the White Star Lines first drew up plans to build the three largest ocean liners the world had even seen: Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic, which was later renamed Britannic and sank in the Mediterranean during World War I. From conception to sinking, the Titanic really only lasted about five years, although obviously its memory has endured far longer.
But by comparison, the iceberg began its slow journey to the North Atlantic over three thousand years ago. Again, we can only guess at the exact details, but the story likely began with snowfall on the western coast of Greenland somewhere around 1,000 BCE. After a few months, this snow has been turned into a more compacted form called firn, which then over subsequent decades is compressed into dense ice by the weight of newer snow on top of it.
The frozen water in these glaciers is slowly forced further westward towards the sea. When they finally reach the coast of the Arctic Ocean, the lapping tides break off chunks of the ice, and icebergs are calved from the glacier, some thirty centuries after their source water was first deposited. The iceberg that sank the Titanic began its journey as a rough contemporary of King Tutankhamun, entire civilizations rising and falling while it made its slow march to infamy.
But once all that's done, the iceberg's life was a short one. We know that because the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, rather than the Arctic, which means the currents must have taken it far south of where it was calved. Starting on the Greenland coast, it would have moved from Baffin Bay to the Davis Strait and then onto the Labrador Sea and, at last, the Atlantic.
The Titanic iceberg was one of the lucky ones, so to speak, as the vast, vast majority of icebergs melt long before they reach that far south. Of the 15,000 to 30,000 icebergs calved each years by the Greenland glaciers, probably only about 1% of them ever make it all the way to the Atlantic. On April 15, 1912, the iceberg was some 1,5000 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
The water temperature on the night of the Titanic sinking was thought to be about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, just below freezing. Such a temperature was of course lethally cold for all those passengers who had been forced to take to the open water to escape the sinking ship.
But such temperatures are far too warm to sustain icebergs for very long. The average life expectancy of an iceberg in the North Atlantic is only about two to three years from calving to melting. That means it likely broke off from Greenland in 1910 or 1911, and was gone forever by the end of 1912 or sometime in 1913. In all likelihood, the iceberg that sank the Titanic didn't even endure to the outbreak of World War I, a lost splash of freshwater mixed in imperceptibly with the rest of the North Atlantic.
Sources and Further Reading