When the snow falls, the properties of the water perform a delicate dance. Snowflakes fall like dominoes fall. A piece of powder forms a crystal, and the appearance of that crystal attracts more crystals until they form long dendrites around the powder bacon like ants around a piece of chocolate. As long as the growing snowflake remains lighter than air, it will float. But as soon as an 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 while every snowflake is different, they’re not as unique as we’ve been told. They start out as spheres and form tendrils to spread heat. Low temperatures produce flakes that look like bullets or needles. Very cold weather is when you find the classic six-sided prism shape, or the fern-shaped crystal with six radiating branches.
It was probably this fern-like form of snow that fell one day fifteen thousand years ago on the frozen Greenland ice sheets. The landmass was already covered in ice two miles thick. Over time, the fresh flakes sank into the ice, hidden from the light of day, and compressed by pressure to a third of their original size.
According to geology, thousands of years passed and little happened. Snow that started out as flakes turned into dense glacial ice as it moved rapidly, about four miles a year, toward the west coast of Greenland. The ice weakens as it approaches the coast, because every day, especially in summer, huge walls of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean.
This is how ocean icebergs form, but it was one iceberg in particular that fell in the summer of 1909 that would drift into infamy. Too brief to have a name, this iceberg was more than two miles wide and a hundred feet tall at its source, big enough to dwarf the Colosseum in Rome and all the pyramids combined, 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 steamboat, the titanic, was conceived with a competitive ambition of size and opulence. It would be the largest and most luxurious passenger liner to ever 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 British (1915). They were designed to ferry the rich, famous and well-connected across the Atlantic in ornate cabins with elegant Victorian comforts. The highest priced ticket in the titanicJust over $60,000 in today’s dollars, it granted one passenger access to an elite dining room, oak-panelled meeting rooms, a Turkish bath, a saltwater pool, huge windows, and a traveling orchestra.
None of these conveniences turned out to matter for long. The ship left a dry dock in Northern Ireland in early 1912 and stopped for pickups in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before turning west toward New York. Once full, the manifest counted just over 2,200 people, more than a third of them crew members. Yet four days into their first transatlantic voyage, after the ship’s famous ice scrape, all but 710 of them would be dead floating on the surface, or worse, lying deep to the ocean floor.
At the time, humans knew little about the behavior of icebergs, except that most of them melted somewhere in the Arctic Circle. John Thomas Towson, a shipping scientist who wrote a book called Practical information on compass deviation, observed in 1857 that icebergs were no different or softer than rocks formed over millennia by time and pressure. Towson knew that icebergs posed an existential danger to the wooden hulls of 19th-century ships. Steel helmets were invincible, he said, but that was based on assumptions, not experience. Such an extreme number of icebergs traveled south through the eastern straits of the Grand Banks in eastern Newfoundland that in 1912 the US Coast Guard dubbed the area “iceberg alley.”
For three years, the frozen mass swayed and rippled in the Arctic waters. At one point, he traveled north and spent the summer of 1910 further to the north pole. It then caught the Labrador Current, which carries icy water south. Most icebergs melt in their first year. About two last. Only a handful of the last three because eventually the Labrador Current meets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which acts like an ocean microwave. Only 1 percent of the northern hemisphere’s icebergs survive this desert area, and eventually only one in several thousand would reach 41 degrees north, the same latitude as New York City and directly in the path of ocean liners. .
When the titanic sank in 1912, sinking a staggering two and a half miles and hitting the seabed at over thirty miles per hour. The ship’s ocean grave was so remote that its location remained a mystery until 1985, when a team benefiting from government-developed submarines and deep-sea vessels were able to snap some blurry snapshots. It took seventy-three years, almost a lifetime, to find the most illustrious and fascinating shipwreck of all time.
This course of events has become so well known (reported endlessly in movies, books, museum exhibits, consumer products, and TV specials) that it’s easy to forget the most amazing detail: how close it came to not happening. Icebergs had pummeled ships for as long as there were ships to attack, but the one that brought down the largest passenger liner ever built was nearly gone. After three years adrift, the icy mass was probably a week old, two at most. It was getting smaller as it moved into warmer waters. As icebergs melt from the bottom. They get top-heavy and go around, followed by more erosion and more around, until finally, when they’re down to the size of a basketball, they’re constantly going around until there’s nothing left.
By some estimates, more icebergs float today than in the Titanic era, largely as a result of warmer water causing glaciers to calve more often. Advances in radar, GPS, and aircraft monitoring, along with larger and better-designed ships, have reduced the danger of icebergs to ships. But icebergs are still a threat. In 2007, a small cruise ship near Antarctica called the MS explorers was hit by an invisible iceberg. After the chunk struck the starboard side, passengers rushed to lifeboats and were rescued several hours later by another nearby cruise ship.
But no iceberg will be as famous as the a. Any other week and a ship no one thought could sink would complete her maiden voyage and turn around for her boring second. Any other day and the iceberg would have been a fraction of the dangerous size of it. Any other time and she would have been hundreds of feet away. But the ship knew nothing to expect, and the ice knew nothing to expect, and the ingenuity of humans at the dawn of modern invention succumbed, unbelievably, to the force of several crushed snowflakes as hard as rocks.
Of SINKING by Daniel Stone, published by Dutton, a publisher of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Stone.