Did an Optical Illusion Cause the Titanic Disaster?

Kamie Berry | September 9th, 2017

Anyone who knows about the doomed ship Titanic knows that it was sunk due to hitting an iceberg. But what continues to puzzle researchers and historians is why none of the lookouts on the ship saw the massive rock of ice in time to save the ship and the more than 1500 people who died in the frigid waters of the Atlantic in 1912.

Now some researchers believe that a rare optical illusion might have caused the Titanic to miss seeing the iceberg until it was too late to avoid.

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The optical illusion in question is called a Fata Morgana, and they have been plaguing sailors and vessels all throughout history. The name Fata Morgana comes from the Latin word for fairy (fata) and the name of the witch from King Arthur (Morgan Le Fay). It gets this name because the illusions were originally believed to be caused by witches trying to lure ships into danger.

The night of the Titanic disaster was calm and clear, which is why it is so hard to understand how the iceberg was missed. But these calm conditions are the perfect time for the Fata Morgana to appear. They occur when a layer of warm air floats above a layer of colder air. The layers act as a refracting lens, causing objects to appear somewhere other than their true location.

It is possible that this refraction effect caused the sea around the iceberg to create a false horizon. This fake horizon then could have obscured the iceberg from view until the ship was too close to avoid hitting it. The moonless night aggravated this condition by making it even harder to see.

The Fata Morgana also helps explain why The Californian, the nearest ship to the Titanic, failed to go to the aid of the passengers who were drowning in the Atlantic. The crew of that ship ignored the Titanic as it was sinking. It is possible that they did so because the optical illusion made the Titanic seem much smaller than it really was. In fact, the captain of that ship later claimed that the ship he saw that night looked nothing like the Titanic. He thought the large ocean liner was further away and that the ship he saw was a smaller cargo vessel. He assumed that the Titanic was further away and still had time to avoid the iceberg. When the ship sank, he thought it was just sailing away. This makes sense if a Fata Morgana distorted what he was seeing. The stratified air layers also distorted the warning and distress signals that the two ships tried to send to each other. Neither vessel received the signals from the other. Had the messages been received, The Californian may have been able to save hundreds of Titanic passengers from a watery grave.

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