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Are icebergs still deadly?
NOT that much is known about the iceberg that Titanic collided with.
It is thought that it could have taken anywhere between six months and three years to float on currents from the seas around Greenland to relatively far south in the Atlantic Ocean, where it ended Titanic’s maiden voyage, resulting in 1,500 deaths.
One of nature’s giants brought down one of humankind’s – a stark reminder of the power of nature that still resonates today.
A century on from the disaster, far more is known about icebergs – but do they still pose a threat for shipping?
Following the tragedy of Titanic, world leaders held the first Safety of Life at Sea convention to address the threat of icebergs.
This resulted in the International Ice Patrol (IIP), which was set up to monitor ‘Iceberg Alley’, off Newfoundland.
The IIP continues to monitor the area today, issuing a daily bulletin which captains use to help avoid icebergs.
In the southern hemisphere, programmes like the European Space Agency’s Polar View provide real-time satellite imagery. While satellites can only track the largest ‘tabular’ icebergs, they can help us to detect the cold waters where dangerous smaller bergs are likely to be encountered.
It is a far cry from what Captain Edward Smith had to detect icebergs – visual sightings and the ship’s radio.
Certainly there have not been tragedies involving iceberg collisions on anything close to the scale of Titanic in the last century.
But collisions do still take place.
There are no official global figures for iceberg strikes but statistics from the Institute for Ocean Technology in Canada record a rate of 2.3 per year from 1980 to 2005, and they also happen in the southern hemisphere.
But while collisions can, and do, still happen, they are far less likely to be fatal today.
“It’s still serious if a ship collides with an iceberg – financially, and there may be injuries.”
Incidents in recent years included Antarctic cruise ship MS Explorer’s collision with an iceberg in November 2007, which saw 154 passengers and crew having to abandon ship and wait for rescue in life rafts for several hours in icy waters.
Last year a Russian fishing boat was damaged by an iceberg while sailing round the Antarctic.
The crew had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship while waiting some two weeks to be rescued.
But Professor Ajit Shenoi, director of the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute at the University of Southampton, says that these isolated incidents should not give the impression that the seas are unsafe.
“Ships today are designed, constructed and operated to be safe, and shipping is the safest mode of transport,” he says.
“I am safer in a ship than I am crossing a road.”
He says that there are a number of reasons why shipping is safer today.
“We design ships so they are more stable. For example, they are compartmentalised, so if one part of the hold is punctured, the damage is contained.”
On Titanic the watertight bulkheads did not go right up to the main deck,meaning water could spill over the top and into the next compartment.
The ship could have stayed afloat with four of these compartments full of water – however five filled on April 15, 1912.
“We have improved the way we construct ships,” continues Professor Shenoi.
“The steel we use performs better at low temperatures.
“We also have better equipment on board ships, whether it’s communication equipment or sensing equipment.
Probably the biggest improvement, in my view, is in the training of crew.
“The procedures of working on a ship are much more tightly regulated. It’s a much clearer work regime, to make safety paramount.”
He says that, when it comes down to it, the most important thing is to avoid a collision.
“In crude form, you don’t want to have a collision with an iceberg – you will always lose.”
But Dr Marsh who has contributed to the new SeaCity Museum, says that there may well be more icebergs in the oceans today than 100 years ago.
“At the same time that we are becoming better at detecting icebergs there are potentially more of them in places where people are increasingly going,” he says.
There is an increasing amount of shipping activity in the Arctic Ocean as the large ice sheets melt, making the area accessible and opening up potential shipping routes as well as areas that are being investigated for natural resources such as oil.
“As the Arctic becomes more ice-free, that’s only relative,” explains Dr Marsh.
“There’s less ice altogether but there may be more large pieces of ice because of the breakup of Greenland.”
Icebergs are classified in a range of sizes, from ‘growlers’, which are less than one metre in height and five metres long, through ‘bergy bits’, ‘small’,’ medium’, ‘large’ and ‘very large’, the last of which is anything over 75 metres in height and 2km in length.
“With the ice sheets breaking up we are seeing more of the bigger icebergs,” says Dr Marsh.
“These can be the size of a county. As changes become more rapid and dramatic, we might see larger pieces of the floating ice tongues of Greenland coming away – what we call ice islands.”
Dr Marsh says that, as well as being hazardous in themselves, they are symptomatic of a far greater hazard to the entire planet – global warming.
“Icebergs are part of a much bigger picture of dramatic change.
“If there are more icebergs we should be respectful of the dangers they pose but we should also see them as an early warning system of greater changes, which include the rather fast disintegration of Greenland.
“All the time water is moving from frozen to liquid form in the oceans, and that’s raising sea levels all around the world.
“Icebergs are telling us that something’s afoot and sea levels are going up.”