"Iceberg Dead Ahead!"

"Iceberg Dead Ahead!"

At present about 10 percent of the earth is covered by glacial ice. During the last great Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago, over 30 percent of the land surface was covered by ice thousands of feet thick.

With so much ice covering the land it is easy to visualize the northern seas being dotted heavily with enormous icebergs. Considering that the earth was then in a state of refrigeration, the number and size of icebergs were not extraordinary. What was unusual was their incredible durability.

There is now definite scientific evidence indicating that huge icebergs actually reached as far south as Mexico City!

With the earth currently undergoing a warming trend, icebergs are more restricted to the frigid regions. Greenland and Antarctica are still covered by huge, thick masses of glacial ice. As these glaciers move into the sea, enormous chunks of ice are broken (calved) from the main mass and float away into the open sea. Thus are icebergs born.

Because the ice consists of fresh water, which is lighter than sea water, the icebergs float. However, only one—seventh of the entire mass floats above the waterline, the remainder being submerged. The appearance of the iceberg can be deceptive; what would appear as a moderate—sized chunk of floating ice may in fact be huge and extend much farther in all directions under the surface of the water.

Sophisticated modern instruments and constant patrolling by the U.S. Coast Guard have considerably reduced the threat of sea hazards from icebergs. Unfortunately such precautions were not available in the past, and the greatest of sea disasters have resulted from collisions of ships with icebergs that frequent the northern latitudes. Who can forget the tragedy of the "unsinkable" Titanic?

With bands playing, the world's largest ship sailed for New York on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, with a load of prominent passengers. Apparently the captain was attempting to complete the voyage in record time; the giant propellers drove the ship at full power, twenty—three knots.

At 9:00 A.M. on April 14, 1912, the captain received a wireless message from another ship warning of ice fields ahead. The message was put on file, and at 1:42 P.M. he received another warning. Underrating the danger, the captain commanded that his sailing orders remain unchanged. By 11:00 P.M. a number of icebergs had been observed, and still the Titanic knifed through the dark sea at full steam.

At 11:40 P.M. the lookout high in the crow's nest saw a huge mass ahead. Immediately pressing the alarm signal, he grabbed the phone and shouted, "Iceberg dead ahead!" Without hesitation the first officer shouted, "Hard astarboard! Engines full astern!" Everyone on the bridge held his breath and stood frozen. There was a slight crunching sound; hardly anyone felt any impact, so they began to feel it had been a very close call. But half an hour later the damage was assessed. The Titanic was mortally wounded.

At that time the great ship had a double—bottomed hull divided into sixteen watertight compartments. Since four of these compartments could be flooded without endangering the ship, it was considered unsinkable. However, the iceberg acted like a huge can opener and made a 300—foot gash in the right side, rupturing five compartments, and the ship started to sink.

Distress signals went out over the wireless, and rockets shot skyward. There were many acts of heroism as most of the women and children were placed in lifeboats and some of cowardice as several of the men jumped into boats being lowered. The Titanic's lifeboats could accommodate only 1,200 of the 2,200 on board, and in the pandemonium many of the boats were lowered into the sea half full. Many passengers jumped into the icy waters, hoping to be picked up by the lifeboats. This was a futile gesture, since the boats were hurriedly rowed away from the Titanic to avoid being sucked under. Those splashing in the water were generally ignored and quickly succumbed to the freezing sea.

By 2:20 A.M. on April 15 the stern of the great ship had risen from the sea and stood high in the air, water cascading from her three huge propellers. The Titanic stayed in this position briefly and then slid forward into a watery grave, taking 1,501 passengers and crew with her. At 3:30 A.M. the liner Carpathia arrived and picked up about 700 survivors from lifeboats floating in what was now a sea of the dead.

A sailor on a German ship in the disaster area spotted an iceberg with a long red paint scar running along its base and photographed it. The photo has been preserved, because this is probably a picture of the murderous iceberg.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth