Under the radar
Even near the well-monitored Grand Banks waters, ships do venture inside the iceberg limit, where conditions can be dicey. (The crew of the Titanic had in fact been repeatedly warned of ice in the area by nearby ships before it sank.) Modern ships have radar and sonar to help detect hazards, but those systems are not always effective, especially for smaller bergs in bad weather.
"This is where the smaller pieces are perhaps a bit more dangerous," says Luc Desjardins, senior ice and iceberg forecaster at the CIS. "Even a smaller-size iceberg that could easily be sighted with our reconnaissance program could actually be missed by a ship's radar, depending on ambient conditions." (In ideal weather airborne reconnaissance can pick up the smallest icebergs, known as growlers, which are about the size of a grand piano.)
To make matters worse, visibility over the Grand Banks is often poor. "The joining of the cold Labrador currents and the warm Gulf Stream water currents make a clash and produce quite a bit of fog," Desjardins says. "So visual detection can be challenging."
The ice threat has not been not eliminated, but it has been greatly diminished by modern surveillance. "While you can still run into it, it's going to be a lot harder to do that," says Lt. Garrett Meyer, chief of the incident management division for the Boston sector of the U.S. Coast Guard. "You see things a lot better than what things were like 100 years ago."
Many rescue vessels
In the event of a disaster, authorities today certainly have more resources than they did in the early 20th century. The Coast Guard has a variety of response vessels, from harbor patrol boats to oceangoing 115-meter cutters and search aircraft, including the HH-60 Jayhawks, which are "basically a search-and-rescue version of the Army's Black Hawk helicopters," Meyer explains.
But the nearest assistance in the open ocean is often not a rescue vessel but a passing commercial or military ship. A voluntary reporting system begun in 1958 called Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue, or AMVER, helps locate nearby vessels in the event of an emergency. In 1912 the notification of a nearby vessel was a crapshoot; the nearest ship to the Titanic did not have its radio operator on duty when the doomed liner radioed for help. (It also remains unclear whether that ship saw the distress rockets fired by the Titanic’s crew.)
In March of this year a damaged 11.5-meter sailboat was rescued northwest of Cuba by the cruise ship Norwegian Star after the Coast Guard used AMVER to determine that the liner was only 50 kilometers from the stricken boat. The sailboat’s position had been relayed to authorities by an emergency radio beacon. "Anything we can get on scene quickly is an asset to us," Meyer says. "The person in the water doesn't care what color the boat is, or who's driving it. They just want to get out of the water."
With a suite of navigation and communication technologies—GPS, radar, AMVER, sonar—at their fingertips, today's ship captains have far more resources to help them avoid and mitigate disasters than did the crew of the Titanic. But the Costa Concordia disaster in January, which claimed at least 30 lives, serves as a tragic reminder that all the technology in the world cannot completely prevent catastrophe. "When it comes down to it, you can't eliminate all accidents," Meyer says. And as far as threats to safety on the water, he adds, "complacency is probably going to be the biggest one."