At 1.30pm, April 11th, 1912, the world’s largest ocean liner of its time set sail from Cobh, Co. Cork on what was to be its first and, alas, final journey across the vast expanse of the north Atlantic. The RMS Titanic sailed without hitch for 3 days and 3 nights before striking an iceberg and descending to its final resting place 2 miles beneath the ocean surface.
In the many years since this infamous disaster, many theories, some arguably more fanciful than others, have abounded as to why and how the ship met with such a dreadful fate. One element that would appear to be blameless, however, is the actual weather conditions that Titanic encountered on its maiden voyage.
The passengers already aboard RMS Titanic were greeted with fair, if cool conditions in a moderate N/NW breeze when the colossal ocean liner arrived at Cobh at 11.30am on April 11th. Photographs taken of Titanic’s arrival at Cobh Harbour, and of its departure a couple of hours later, show that the weather was partly cloudy with an abundance of Stratocumulus (abbreviation ‘Sc’) clouds, which typically form in cool, semi-stable air masses, such as the one which lay over Ireland when the Titanic made it one final stop.
Once Titanic departed from Cobh Harbour, favorable weather conditions with light winds remained with it for the remainder of the day, and throughout the following couple of days, (April 12th & 13th) as it sailed through predominantly stable conditions, although fog banks were occasionally encountered. Late on the April 13th however, a noticeable southerly breeze had begun to pick up.
This increase in wind (estimated to have reached a velocity of between 15 -20 knots) was associated with an advancing, if somewhat innocuous cold front. Despite this, the overnight temperature remained at a mild 13-15 Deg.C under cloudy skies. The passage of the actual cold front later that morning was not associated with any significant weather, with reports suggesting no more than scattered showers at it crossed over.
Of more significance, however, was the marked increase in wind speed as it veered to a northwesterly point along with drop in temperature of around 5 Deg. C once the cold front moved away to the east. This sudden change in weather conditions marked the advancement of an intense Anticyclone that at the time, was exiting from the North American continent. This particular anticyclone had its origins over the Canadian Arctic, where it developed quite rapidly between the April 8t -10th before moving southeastwards towards the east coast of the United States over the following days, bringing with it an unusually cold bank of air throughout the region.
This exceptionally cold air mass eventually spilled into the western Atlantic, and on reaching the Titanic’s location later on April 14th, was associated with clearing skies, a sharp drop in temperature and also a rapid decrease in wind. As Charles Herbert Lightoller, Titanic’s second Officer remembered:
“From 6 p.m. onwards to the time of the collision the weather was perfectly clear and fine. There was no moon, the stars were out, and there was not a cloud in the sky. There was, however, a drop in temperature of 10 deg. in slightly less than two hours, and by about 7:30 p.m. the temperature was 33 deg. F., and it eventually fell to 32 deg. F.”
By 11.30 pm (Titanic time) that tragic night, the Arctic High, now with a central pressure of 1035 hPa, had reached the location of the RMS Titanic, inducing an eerie calm and a reported haze beneath an unusually vivid and star dappled sky.
It is estimated that when the Titanic struck the iceberg at 11.40 pm, that both the air and sea temperature were a little below freezing, which doubtless helped increase the fatality count as the mighty ship descended to its cold and watery grave.