After the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, claiming more than 1,500 lives, the international community took swift action to prevent similar catastrophes.
Just over one month after the Titanic struck an iceberg late on April 14, 1912, the U.S. Navy dispatched the cruiser USS Birmingham to begin preliminary ice patrols of the North Atlantic, near where the wrecked ocean liner lay. By January 1914 an international conference produced the first of several conventions for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), dictating safety standards for mariners. Included in the 1914 convention was the requirement that ships carry enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers and crew on board, a precaution that was not taken for the Titanic's voyage.
Those changes, along with the advent of superior technologies for navigation and communication, have made the seas much safer since 1912. As such, it is unlikely that the specific circumstances leading to the sinking of the Titanic will recur. But the ocean remains an unpredictable place, fraught with hazards.
Ice patrols from sea and sky
The first SOLAS convention addressed the proximate cause of the Titanic disaster: the danger of icebergs near the Grand Banks off the Newfoundland coast. The international agreement called for regular ice patrols, funded by a consortium of seafaring nations and carried out by the U.S. Those patrols, which continue today, have kept watch on the icebergs floating over the underwater plateau of the Banks, where transatlantic shipping routes cross the path of icebergs drifting down from Greenland.
Today's ice watchers, of course, have access to technology that did not exist in the early 20th century. Nowadays the U.S. Coast Guard's International Ice Patrol (IIP) monitors the Grand Banks with radar-equipped HC-130 aircraft. "It's certainly not the days of old where the guy's freezing his butt off on the lookout," says John Luzader, senior chief marine science technician with the IIP. Both the IIP and the Canadian Ice Service (CIS) fly reconnaissance flights over the iceberg-infested waters off Newfoundland, using all-weather radar and, when possible, visual confirmation to identify icebergs.
Together, the two patrol agencies issue a daily ice report, which defines the so-called iceberg limit. "We draw a line in the water and say, you should be safe to navigate beyond that line," Luzader says. "Inside that line, we say, 'there may be ice, and proceed at your own risk.'"
The iceberg bulletin also draws on satellite observations and reports from the crews of passing ships, which may have sighted an iceberg or simply picked up a stationary object on radar. Even if the iceberg in question has already been identified from the air, the ship reports can provide updates on an iceberg's position. In the absence of a recent sighting, the iceberg forecasters use a computer model to predict the bergs' drift and deterioration.
In nearly 100 years of operations, the IIP has established an enviable track record. "Since we've taken over ice patrol, nobody that's heeded our warning has struck an iceberg," Luzader says. (Less successful were the IIP's early attempts to destroy icebergs altogether. A 1959 article in The New York Times documented a failed attempt at an incendiary bombing campaign, which followed similar experiments with guns, torpedoes and explosives. Finally, the Times reported, the patrol "conceded that the icebergs had been more or less impervious to destruction by man-made means.")
But ice hazards have continued to doom ships beyond the Grand Banks. In 1959 a deadly accident occurred north of the zone monitored by the IIP. On its maiden voyage the Danish ship Hans Hedtoft struck an iceberg and sank off the southern tip of Greenland, claiming the lives of all 95 people on board. And in the Southern Ocean the Antarctic cruise ship Explorer sank in 2007 after ice punctured its hull; fortunately everyone on board was rescued.
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."