When snow falls, the properties of water perform a delicate dance. Snowflakes fall like dominoes fall. A piece of dust forms a crystal, and the appearance of that crystal attracts more crystals until they form long dendrites around the speck of dust like ants around a piece of chocolate. As long as the growing snowflake remains lighter than air, it will float. But as soon as one extra crystal crosses the tipping point, the structure will succumb to gravity and fall.
Snow tends to fall in places where other snow has already fallen. And even though every snowflake is different, they’re not as unique as we’ve been told. They start as spheres and form tendrils to diffuse heat. Cold temperatures produce flakes that look like bullets or needles. Extra‐cold weather is when you find the classic shape of a six‐sided prism, or the fern‐like crystal with six radiating branches.
It was probably this form of fern‐like snow that fell one day, fifteen thousand years ago, on the frozen ice sheets of Greenland. The landmass was already covered in ice two miles thick. With time, the fresh flakes descended into the ice, hidden from daylight, and compressed by pressure to a third of their original size.
Fitting with geology, thousands of years passed and little happened. Snow that started as flakes was transformed to dense glacial ice as it moved quickly, about four miles per year, toward the west coast of Greenland. Ice weakens as it nears the coast, because every day, particularly in the summer, enormous walls of ice flake off the glacier and fall into the ocean.
This is how ocean icebergs form. But it was one particular iceberg that fell in the summer of 1909 that would drift toward infamy. Around too briefly to have a name, this iceberg was more than two miles wide and one hundred feet tall at its birth, big enough to dwarf the Colosseum in Rome and all the pyramids put together, at least before it started melting. It would tower over the largest steamship ever conceived, which was also formed in that summer of 1909.
That steamship, the Titanic, was conceived with a competitive ambition for size and opulence. It would be the largest and most luxurious passenger liner ever to float. Built over three years, it was a triplet, designed by the White Star Line with two sister ships, the Olympic (1911) and the slightly larger Britannic (1915). They were designed to ferry the rich, famous and well-connected across the Atlantic in ornate cabins with elegant Victorian amenities. The highest price ticket on the Titanic, just north of $60,000 in today’s dollars, granted a passenger access to an elite dining room, oak-paneled meeting rooms, a Turkish bath, a salt-water swimming pool, enormous bay windows and a roving orchestra.
At the time, humans knew little about the behavior of icebergs, except that most melted somewhere in the Arctic Circle. John Thomas Towson, a scientist devoted to ship navigation who wrote a book called Practical Information on the Deviation of the Compass, observed in 1857 that icebergs were no different—and no softer—than rocks formed over millennia by time and pressure. Towson knew that icebergs posed an existential danger to the wooden hulls of nineteenth‐century ships. Steel hulls were invincible, he said, but that was based on assumption, not experience. Such an extreme number of icebergs traveled south through the east strait of the Grand Banks in eastern Newfoundland that in 1912 the U.S. Coast Guard nicknamed the area “iceberg alley.”
For three years the icy mass bobbed and weaved in Arctic waters. At one point, it traveled north and spent the summer of 1910 farther toward the north pole. Then it caught the Labrador current, which carries freezing water south. Most icebergs melt within their first year. A few last two. Only a handful last three because, eventually, the Labrador current meets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which acts as an oceanic microwave. Only 1 percent of northern hemisphere icebergs survive this desert zone, and finally, only one in several thousand would make it to 41 degrees north, the same latitude as New York City and directly in the path of transatlantic ships.
When the Titanic sank in 1912, it plunged an astounding two and a half miles and hit the seafloor at more than thirty miles per hour. The ship’s ocean grave was so remote that its location remained a mystery until 1985, when a team that had the benefit of government‐developed submarines and deep‐water crafts was able to take some blurry snapshots. It took seventy‐three years, almost an entire human lifespan, to find the most illustrious and fascinating shipwreck of all time.
This course of events has become so widely known—told endlessly in films, books, museum exhibits, consumer products and looping TV specials—that it’s easy to forget the most astounding detail: how close it came to not happening. Icebergs had struck ships as long as there had been ships to strike, but the one that felled the largest passenger liner ever built was nearly gone. After three years adrift, the icy mass likely had one week to live, two at most. It was getting smaller while wading into warmer water. As icebergs melt from the bottom. They grow top‐heavy and flip, followed by more erosion and more flipping, until eventually, when they’ve been reduced to the size of a basketball, they’re constantly flipping until nothing is left.
By some estimates, more icebergs float around today than in the Titanic’s era, largely the result of warmer water that causes more frequent glacier calving. Advances in radar, GPS and aircraft monitoring, along with bigger and better-engineered ships, have reduced the danger of icebergs to ships. But icebergs still remain a threat. In 2007, a small cruise ship near Antarctica called the MS Explorer was hit by an unseen iceberg. After the chunk gashed the starboard side, passengers rushed to lifeboats and were rescued several hours later by another nearby cruise ship.
But no iceberg will ever be as famous as the one. Any other week and a ship nobody believed could sink would complete its maiden voyage and turn around for its ho‐hum second one. Any other day and the iceberg would’ve been a fraction of its dangerous size. Any other hour and it would’ve been hundreds of feet away. But the ship waited for nothing, and the ice knew nothing to wait for, and the ingenuity of humans at the dawn of modern invention succumbed, rather incredibly, to the force of several crushed‐up snowflakes as hard as rock.
Smithsonian 8/16/2022 Daniel Stone
From SINKABLE by Daniel Stone, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Stone.
Titanic Iceberg – Information About the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic