- Witnesses saw a bright, long-lasting aurora the night the Titanic sank.
- A new theory suggests that aurora came from a powerful solar storm, which could have interfered with compasses and contributed to the Titanic’s crash.
- But there was only a small burst of solar storm-like activity that night, so it’s probably not the culprit.
- However, the solar storm could have interfered with radio communications as the Titanic sent out SOS signals.
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As water flooded the belly of the RMS Titanic, a stunning display danced in the sky above the sinking ship.
“There was no moon, but the aurora borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon,” James Bisset, second officer on the nearby vessel Carpathia, later wrote.
The Carpathia responded to the Titanic’s SOS signal on April 14, 1912, after the ship struck an iceberg. As it approached the lifeboats, the sky was still shimmering.
“The peculiar atmospheric conditions of visibility intensified as we approached the icefield with the greenish beams of the aurora borealis shimmering and confusing the horizon ahead of us to the northwards,” Bisset wrote.
Now, a researcher thinks that display may be indicate another force at play in the ship’s demise: a storm in space that wreaked magnetic chaos on Earth.
The aurora appears when electrically charged particles from the sun wash over the Earth. Our planet’s magnetic field channels these particles to the poles, where they interact with gases in the atmosphere to create dazzling ribbons of pink and green light.
Mila Zinkova, an independent weather researcher, thinks the aurora on the night the Titanic sank could have come from an episode of intense solar activity — a geomagnetic storm.
Such storms can interfere with magnetic and electric technology on Earth. So Zinkova thinks it’s possible that a solar storm may have swayed compasses, steering the Titanic towards doom. She describes the theory in a paper published last month in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal, Weather.
Other experts say the theory is unlikely, though it is possible that space weather may have hindered efforts to rescue the ship’s passengers.
A big space storm on the night the Titanic sank is unlikely
Lawrence Beesley, a passenger on the Titanic, mistook the aurora for the light of dawn as he awaited rescue on one of the lifeboats.
“The soft light increased for a time, and died away a little; glowed again, and then remained stationary for some minutes,” he wrote in his account of the disaster. “‘The northern lights!’ It suddenly came to me, and so it was: Presently the light arched fanwise across the northern sky, with faint streamers reaching towards the Pole star.”
Despite the brightness of that aurora, however, geomagnetic data from the night show only a small burst of activity in Earth’s magnetic field.
That could account for the aurora that survivors and rescuers saw, but it was “not enough to count as a storm,” according to Mike Hapgood, a space-weather consultant at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK.
What’s more, the small burst came right around the time that the Titanic struck the iceberg. Zinkova’s theory would only be plausible if there had been a geomagnetic storm well before the ship crashed.
“The bottom line is that the timing is wrong to consider space weather as a cause of the collision with the iceberg. The space weather event occurred after the collision,” Hapgood told Business Insider.
But one facet of Zinkova’s theory may be true: Geomagnetic activity could have interfered with radio communications after the shipwreck. There, Hapgood said, space weather may have had “some small effects.”
That could explain why the nearby vessel La Provence never received the Titanic’s SOS signal, and why the Titanic couldn’t receive the Mount Temple’s response to its cries for help.
NASA spacecraft could help predict dangerous geomagnetic storms in the future
Even if there had been a major geomagnetic storm the night the Titanic sank, it likely would not have been enough to tip the scales.
“Chances are that a slight change in compass headings would not have prevented the disaster,” Stephen Frazee, a trustee on the board of the Titanic International Society, told Business Insider.
Instead, historians mostly attribute the Titanic’s demise to Captain E.J. Smith’s decision to sail at full speed through icy waters that night. Other contributing factors include the lookouts’ lack of binoculars and a radio operator’s failure to relay another ship’s ice warning to the captain.
However, geomagnetic storms have wreaked havoc on critical infrastructure and exacerbated other disasters in the past. Two such storms cut off emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours following Hurricane Irma in 2017. And a geomagnetic storm in 1989 knocked out Quebec’s power for about nine hours. (Electric currents from solar storms can travel down Earth’s pipelines and power lines.)
Even the possibility that the same forces might have played a role in the Titanic disaster, Zinkova wrote, shows that “predicting space weather is as important as forecasting meteorological weather.”
But dangerous solar storms are nearly impossible to foresee. The sun can send billions of tons of material hurtling towards Earth, and the charged particles can reach the planet in under half an hour.
Scientists hope new spacecraft could improve their understanding of these events, though.
In February, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar Orbiter to capture data about eruptions on the sun’s surface. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is also zooming around the sun. It’s designed to measure solar eruptions as they happen, tracing the flow of material from the sun to the Earth in real-time.
The information these spacecraft are collecting could one day help scientists forecast geomagnetic storms before they happen.