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Titanic disaster unlikely to happen in this age, experts say

Modern warning systems plus radar and a better sense of oceanography make it unlikely that a ship could be lost at sea--with hundreds or even thousands dead--in 2012.

In the years immediately after the 1912 Titanic disaster, the U.S. government along with others with jurisdiction over North Atlantic shipping lanes began using new technologies to help mariners avoid deadly icebergs.
U.S. Coast Guard

Given that the builder of the Titanic is said to have famously bragged that his amazing new ship could never be sunk, it's dangerous to argue that an accident like the one that sent the famous vessel to the bottom of the sea 100 years ago could never happen again.

But with the centennial of the April 15, 1912, disaster quickly approaching, there's every indication that modern science and technology in combination with a much greater awareness of seaborne hazards, make such a tragedy -- at least on the scale of Titanic--extremely unlikely today.

It's not, of course, that icebergs are no longer dangerous to mariners. They definitely are, said Mike Hicks, an oceanographer and the chief scientist at the International Ice Patrol (IIP), an arm of the U.S. Coast Guard.

But since 1913, the International Ice Patrol has been responsible for monitoring the ever-changing state of icebergs in the North Atlantic -- home to many of the world's cold-water shipping lanes -- and has, in conjunction with the Canadian Ice Service, issued a "daily iceberg analysis" meant to give ship captains the very latest information on the frozen dangers that might lie in their path.

"We have a safety record we're very proud of," said Hicks. "Not a single ship that heeded our warnings has struck an iceberg."

Still, there is an iceberg season every year -- generally from early February until at least June, if not September--and during that time, there is often danger to shipping passing through the North Atlantic. Hicks explained that each day during the season, the IIP puts out its warning, typically delineating the "iceberg limit" that ships need to avoid.

The official iceberg warning from the International Ice Patrol for April 10, 2012. If the captain of the Titanic had had information like this, disaster might well have been avoided. International Ice Patrol

Hicks said that the warning is compiled using all reports from the Coast Guard's aircraft, as well as input from oil production assets in the Grand Banks, and information from ships going back and forth across the North Atlantic. Once everything has come in, the IIP uses the data to generate a computer model that predicts where icebergs are likely to be, and for how long.

"It's basically a line on a chart of the ocean, and it shows that there's ice inside of this line, so if you stay outside of this line, you should be safe," Hicks said. "If a ship is leaving Montreal and going to Germany, they'll look at the [warning] and well before they get into iceberg danger, they'll plan their route."

Although he doesn't know the exact percentage of ships that utilize the daily warnings, Hicks said that a "large majority" do, the exception being those that are trying to take shorter routes, or which are carrying out work that forces them into dangerous water. He pointed to the case of a 2010 accident in which a ship that wasn't heeding the warning collided with a small iceberg, an accident that while not deadly, did cave in the vessel's "bulbous bow" and force it into drydock for large-scale repairs.

On November 24, 2007, another ship, the MV Explorer smashed into a submerged iceberg off the Antarctic Peninsula, causing a hole "the size of a fist" that ended up forcing an evacuation and the ship's sinking. No one was killed in the accident.

But those incidents are very rare exceptions to the rule, suggested both Hicks and Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center. And that's in large part because of the ongoing international efforts to monitor icebergs in crucial shipping lanes, and the work done to make sure that mariners have the latest data in their hands as they approach such areas.

More iceberg hazards than in 1912?
The evidence is hard to dispute: changes in the global climate are resulting in more and more icebergs shearing off in places like Greenland, almost certainly more than was the case a century ago.

But according to Hicks, that has nothing at all to do with dangers faced by ships making their way across the North Atlantic.

For example, he said, the Titanic itself had its fateful collision east of Providence, R.I., far away from the greatest preponderance of icebergs. And in that area, the appearance of ice depends on the currents and the collision of the chilly Labrador Current and the warmer Gulf Stream, something that changes significantly from year to year, regardless of global climate change.

But while there may be more icebergs breaking off of Greenland, Scambos said that almost any that made their way south into the shipping lanes would melt well before they endangered anyone.

Nevertheless, icebergs do occur in and around the shipping lanes, particularly during the iceberg season.

As such, "we see enormous variability in the count of icebergs delivered into the shipping lanes each year," Hicks said. "The number of icebergs we see that affect transatlantic shipping has much more to do with complex oceanographic and meteorological process that affect the iceberg delivery system."

At the same time, Hicks said the preponderance of ship-board radar has also made the ocean safer from rogue ice, as has the ability to get online while at sea in order to look at satellite imagery.

Scambos agreed that radar and satellite Internet both play a big part in helping keep ships safe while in transit, and that while not every shipping line invests in state-of-the art equipment, most have what it takes to identify large icebergs.

At the same time, general understanding of oceanography is another arrow in the mariner's quiver that helps with avoiding the cold water currents where icebergs congregate.

Of course, radar and other technologies can only help a ship captain if he or she is using it properly, and there are plenty of examples of disasters at sea resulting from incompetence.

But both Hicks and Scambos argued that with the advances in technology and the amount of effort that goes into monitoring icy hazards, ships have probably never been safer at sea, at least from Titanic-like accidents.

"We have a much better system in place now than when Titanic sank," Hicks said. "But [icebergs are] still a problem. And if our system went away, I suspect there would be more iceberg collisions. And a higher probability of a sinking."