Titanic II: Climate Scientists Assess Ship's Risk of Hitting Icebergs
On a moonless night in 1912, the Titanic sunk on its voyage to New York from Southhampton, England. The tragedy is largely blamed on the fact that the crew ignored several warnings about icebergs ahead, including the one that doomed the ship and 1,500 passengers. But history hasn’t stopped Australian conservative politician and billionaire Clive Palmer from following through with his plan to sail the Titanic II. Climate scientists, meanwhile, say it’s a risky endeavor.
On Wednesday, Palmer announced in a video that his cruise ship company, Blue Star Line, is back to work on Titanic II despite previous setbacks. The maiden voyage is scheduled for 2022 and will follow exactly the same path as the original ship, though, its journey will begin in China instead of Southampton. While Blue Star Line insists the Titanic II will be “every bit luxurious as her namesake,” she will have “21st-century technology and the latest navigation and safety systems.” This is very good news because there are still plenty of icebergs in North Atlantic shipping lanes that vessels still occasionally hit.
Florence Fetterer, an NOAA liaison at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, tells Inverse the danger of the Titanic’s route “has always been icebergs, which calve from glaciers, mostly from the west side of Greenland, then drift south into the North Atlantic.”
Icebergs Straight Ahead
Fortunately, the Titanic II’s passengers can rely on the International Ice Patrol (IPP), an organization operated by the United States Coast Guard, to monitor iceberg danger in the North Atlantic Ocean and provide relevant iceberg warnings to the maritime community. The IPP started in 1914 because of the Titanic disaster.
There hasn’t been a detectable long-term upward trend in the number of icebergs that have entered shipping lanes since the IPP started keeping track, says Fetterer. Records show that nearly 500 icebergs enter shipping lanes in an average year. Year to year variations, however, can be wide. The busiest year in IPP history was 1984, when 2,202 icebergs drifted in. In 2006, there were none.
However, in the past decade or so, things have started to change. In 2017, over 1,000 icebergs appeared, capping a stretch of four extreme iceberg seasons. There’s reason to think that trend will continue.
A Growing Threat
“Some think that the warming that the Arctic is experiencing — the Arctic is warming about two times as fast as the rest of the planet — and the subsequent melting that glaciers are undergoing, is lubricating the glaciers at bedrock and allowing them to calve off new glaciers more rapidly,” says Fetterer. “Calving from rapidly retreating Greenland glaciers is the source of these icebergs.”
The bottom line, she says, is that there is a lot of variability of glaciers in shipping lanes, and the IPP does a good job of sighting and tacking all the ones that could be a danger to ships. Even if the path of the Titanic II is packed with glaciers, the ship will be alerted by the IPP.
But despite the fact that there’s currently too much variability from year to year to say there’s a significant upward trend in the number of icebergs, melting glaciers do mean there’s a potential for iceberg increase.
Same Ship, Different Route
Though it’s hard to characterize how icebergs have changed, Andrew Pershing, Ph.D., a chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and climate variability researcher, tells Inverse that the oceanic route of the Titanic has changed in other definitive ways since 1912.
“The North Atlantic is one of the most dynamic parts of the global ocean,” Pershing says. “While average temperatures in the ocean are rising, the change is not uniform.”
Pershing says the eastern portion of the original Titanic’s route has warmed slightly: In April 2017, it was about 0.5 degrees Celsius warmer there than it was in April 1912. The central part of the route has actually cooled a little bit. The western third, meanwhile, has warmed by a full 2 degrees Celsius. (If you’re wondering whether this warmer climate would stave off hypothermia if you were to be exposed, Jack-style, to the Atlantic’s waters, the answer is no.)
Pershing points out that it’s still possible to hit sea ice around the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, but at the end of the day, Titanic II seems to be safer than its predecessor — as long as it takes advantage of the safety technology and warnings from the IPP.
But that’s not to say there’s no risk. Some scientists think that the maiden voyage was victim to a freak accident of nature. In 2012, scientists from Texas State University found that the Earth was unusually close to the sun and moon that winter, and so their gravitational pulls on the ocean were enhanced. The record tides created as a result refloated icebergs that were stuck along coastlines back into North Atlantic shipping lanes, where one sent the original ship to her doom.