Did activity from the aurora borealis have a part to play in the sinking of the RMS Titanic?
It’s a question that may seem like a longshot in what seems to be an open-and-shut case.
But a new study published in the journal Weather in August hints that the ship’s fateful collision with an iceberg on April 14, 1912 could have occurred as a result of a geomagnetic storm that disrupted navigation and communication for the crew of it and a nearby ship.
Eyewitnesses in the area observed that “the northern lights were very strong that night,” according to the study’s author, independent weather researcher Mila Zinkova.
Auroral activities occur when solar flares — massive explosions on the surface of the sun — let off magnetic gases that move towards the Earth and collide with its atmosphere, NASA explains.
When they reach this far, some of the gases mingle with gases in the Earth’s magnetic field, resulting in the sublime northern lights that many know for their glowing hues of green, red, purple and blue.
While the Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet from solar radiation and other forces from space, it can throw humans off in the ways we’ve learned to interpret — as in compasses, for example, which uses magnets.
According to Zinkova’s research, the northern lights were active the night of Titanic’s sinking.
James Bisset, second officer of the RMS Carpathia, which was near the Titanic the night it sank and saved some of its victims, noted seeing the bright lights in his log that night.
“There was no moon, but the Aurora Borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon," he wrote, according to Zinkova. Five hours later, he again noted "greenish beams" of the aurora as the Carpathia approached the Titanic's lifeboats.
Zinkova contends that the disruption caused by the geomagnetic storm scrambled the SOS signal that the Titanic sent out.
“The Titanic’s Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall worked out the ship’s SOS position,” she explains, before noting the discrepancy: “Boxhall’s position was around 13 nautical miles (24 km) off their real position.”
This information, which the Carpathia used, could have resulted in “combined compass error,” taking into account the rescue ship’s own influence under the storm.
“The compasses of the Carpathia could have been under the influence of the geomagnetic storm for 5.5 hours, before and after she received the Titanic’s SOS, and until she reached the lifeboats,” Zinkova explains. “Therefore, a possible combined compass error could have been one of the factors that contributed to the successful rescue of the Titanic survivors.”