Field of Science

15 April, 1912: The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic

In the night of April 14, 1912 the passenger liner "R.M.S. Titanic" collided with an iceberg, two hours later (2:20, April 15)  the ship sank, estimated 1490 to 1517 passengers died in the cold water of the Atlantic.
The story of the ship became part of history and pop culture, but the story of the iceberg that caused the disaster is less understand or known and only vague descriptions and some photos exists of the supposed iceberg(s).

Fig.1. The moment of the collision according to the sailor Frederick Fleet - one of the two men on duty as lookout in the night of April 14 (after EATON & HAAS 1986).

Fig.2. One of the many icebergs suspected of having sank the Titanic photographed in the morning of April 15, from board of the ship "Prinz Adalbert". The eyewitnesses still unaware of the disaster of the previous night reported a "red smear" at the waterline of the white giant still visible and therefore supposedly less than 12 hours old. The (contradicting) dimension of the iceberg given were 30 meter height and 100 meter width (photo from Wikipedia).

Fig.3. Another iceberg photographed April 20, from the German steamer "Bremen" claimed to be the Titanic iceberg based on the vicinity to the location of the disaster and the description of the iceberg according to e
yewitnesses reports of Titanic survivors (photo from Wikipedia).

Fig.4. Photography of an ice
berg from the cable ship "Minia", one of the first ships to reach the area in search for debris and bodies. The crew found debris and bodies floating in the vicinity of the depicted iceberg and the captain assured that this was the only iceberg near the scene of the collision (after Titanic & Nautical Resource Center).
 Fig.5. Journalist Colin Campbell, a passenger of the "Carpathia" - the first ship to approach the scene of the disaster and save the surviving passengers of the Titanic - described the iceberg for the New York Tribune (after EATON & HAAS 1986).

Fig.6. Photography from the ship "Birma" of the same iceberg as described by Campbell. This iceberg has some remarkable similarities to the iceberg as described and drawn by survivors of the Titanic (see the first figure with the drawing by Fleet).
Despite the question if one of the photos shows the culprit iceberg, the remarkably number of spotted icebergs emphasizes the notion that in 1912 an exceptional number of these white giants reached such southern latitudes (after EATON & HAAS 1986).

The icebergs from the North Atlantic originate mainly from the western coasts of Greenland, where ice streams deliver large quantities of ice in the fjord-systems which leads to the Baffin sea. Still today this region is the most important origin of icebergs on the northern hemisphere, thousands of junks of ice per year drop from the front of the glaciers and if large enough will one or three years later reach the North Atlantic.

Ironically it was in 1909, three years before the disaster, that the construction works for the Titanic begun in the dockyard of Harland & Wolff Ltd. in Belfast (Ireland).

When the large iceberg reached the cold open sea of the Baffin Bay the West Greenland Current pushed it first slowly to north
ern realms following the coast of Greenland, then along the Canadian coast the voyage to the south begun.
Finally offshore of Newfoundland the iceberg was captured by the "warm", but fast Gulf Stream and pushed in south-western direction. Only one percent of all icebergs reach such southern latitudes, in 1912 however icebergs were spotted remarkably often in this area, maybe as a result of previous mild winters and strong activity of the calving glaciers (discussed also in this post on
"The Science behind the Iceberg that sank the Titanic").

 Fig.7. Schematic diagram of marine currents (blue= cold; red = hot) around Greenland and the hypothetical region of origin (West Greenland) and route of the iceberg that collided with the Titanic.

The construction of the Titanic proceeded with astonishing rate; the ship was launched to the sea on May 31, 1911 and her outfitting was completed by March 31,  1912.
The ship began its maiden voyage from Southampton, and after a stop in the French Cherbourg and the Irish Queenstown, it set out the final route for New York City on April 10, 1912.

Four days later the Titanic encountered the anonymous iceberg. In the following days bypassing ships at the site of the disaster encountered and photographed various icebergs, some eyewitnesses claim to have spotted red paint on some of them, however there is no conclusive evidence that the culprit iceberg was spotted - and there will never be - at least two to three weeks later the iceberg that sank the Titanic would be melted and disappeared forever into the Atlantic Ocean.


EATON, J.P. & HAAS, C.A. (1986): Titanic Triumph and Tragedy. Haynes Publishing: 352
SOUTH, C. (2006): The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic. The Natural World documentary film – BBC


  1. Fascinating - found this post through the iceberg photo that was making it's way around tumblr via #science

  2. Nice post, way to merge pop culture history with the science of ice bergs.

    Thanks, I learned a few things I didn't know about ice bergs, and like the map (fig 7) and the path lines.

  3. I would argue that the Bremen photo is probably the most likely iceberg of those that were subsequently photographed. It closely resembles descriptions from three different Titanic survivors. In fact, James Cameron based the iceberg depicted in his 1997 film on those eyewitness accounts. Yet, the Bremen photo wasn't rediscovered until three years AFTER the film was released.


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