How Cold Was The Water When The Titanic Sank?

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Rendering of people in a wooden lifeboat while the titanic sinks in the background

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Like an icy hand gripping the heart, the water’s temperature when the Titanic sank was a chilling 28°F (-2°C).

The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, was one of the most infamous disasters in maritime history.

Over 1,500 lives were lost when the supposedly “unsinkable” ocean liner struck an iceberg and plunged into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic during her maiden voyage. While the story of the Titanic has been analyzed from countless angles, one detail that often gets overlooked is the role that the freezing water temperature played in the enormous loss of life.

This article looks into the weather conditions and the water temperature when the Titanic sank. We’ll examine how the freezing ocean temperature impacted passengers and hampered rescue efforts.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • The water temperature at the time of the Titanic sinking was around 28°F (-2°C).
  • The frigid ocean temperature accelerated the onset of hypothermia and reduced the chances of survival for those in the water.
  • Insufficient lifeboats on the Titanic left over 1,500 people exposed to the brutal temperatures.

How Cold Was The Water When The Titanic Sank?

Rendering of people in a wooden lifeboat while the titanic sinks in the backgroundPin

The ocean water temperature at the time of the Titanic sinking was around 28°F (-2°C), which is below freezing. The freezing water temperature greatly increased the risk of hypothermia and significantly reduced survival rates.

We know the ocean temperature at the time of Titanic’s sinking thanks to Captain Stanley Lord. While sailing the SS Californian through the same icy waters as the Titanic, Captain Stanly Lord took readings of the water temperatures and provided his analysis to the authorities.

After hitting an enormous iceberg, the RMS Titanic found itself in perilous conditions accentuated by the harsh Atlantic water temperatures. The frigid waters sped up the onset of hypothermia, rapidly decreasing survival rates. The tragic sinking left passengers and crew stranded in the icy waters for hours until the arrival of rescue ships.

Famously, the Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats for everyone on board. There were only 20 lifeboats available on the Titanic, while 48 would have been needed for everyone onboard.

With the Titanic’s lifeboats insufficient to accommodate all aboard, many were left in the merciless cold. The survival rate in such conditions was dismally low.

Historians believe that hypothermia, caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures, was one of the leading causes of death.

The closest ship RMS Carpathia, arrived over three and a half hours after the Titanic sank. By the time the rescue ship arrived, it was too late. The icy grip of the Atlantic had claimed most of the passengers.

The Titanic’s sinking underscored the deadly combination of freezing water temperatures and inadequate preparedness in maritime travel.

Impact of Water Temperature on Titanic’s Passengers

Titanic and IcebergPin
Original oil painting of Titanic and iceberg in ocean at night on canvas.Full moon and stars.Modern Impressionism

It’s crucial to note that the temperature of the ocean, a chilling 28°F, severely affected the survival chances of the ship’s passengers. Exposure to the freezing water caused a rapid drop in their average body temperature.

Human bodies typically maintain an average body temperature of 98.6°F or 37°C. Symptoms of hypothermia begin when the body’s temperature drops below 95°F or 35°C.

As the body loses heat faster than it can produce, critical bodily functions slow down or stop. The heart rate, nervous system, and other organs can’t work normally.

Some symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Muscle stiffness

The effects of hypothermia are severe and can quickly lead to unconsciousness and eventual death.

Cold shock is another life-threatening condition that passengers face. Cold shock occurs when there is an abrupt drop in skin temperature. Many people would’ve experienced cold shock from the sudden exposure to the cold water.

Cold shock leads to a gasping reflex that puts Titanic victims at risk of inhaling water and drowning.

Other symptoms of cold shock include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Impaired cognitive abilities
  • Panic and disorientation
  • Gasping

The icy water temperature, combined with the lack of lifeboats, sealed their fate. The tragic situation was exacerbated by the fact that rescue efforts were not immediate. This leads us to the subsequent section about how the cold water affected rescue efforts.

Survival Time in Cold Water

Iceberg sphynx in Antarctica 2Pin
A huge iceberg adrift with a shape reminding the Sphinx of Egypt Taken in the Trinity Peninsula, december 27 2011.

The frigid 28°F (-2°C) North Atlantic waters hastened hypothermia onset for Titanic victims plunged into the ocean. In such freezing temperatures, the body loses heat dangerously fast. Survival time is drastically reduced, dropping the chances of enduring until rescue.

Two critical factors determine survival odds in cold water – length of exposure and water temperature. Below is a chart of survival time estimates:

Water TemperatureExhaustion or UnconciousnessExpected Time of Survival
32.5 (0.3)Under 15 minutesUnder 15 to 45 minutes
32.5-40 (0.3-4.5)15 to 30 minutes30 to 90 minutes
40-50 (4.5-10)30 to 60 minutes1 to 3 hours
50-60 (10-15.5)1 to 2 hours1 to 6 hours
60-70 (15.5-21)2 to 7 hours2 to 40 hours
70-80 (21-26.5)2 – 12 hours3 hours to indefinite
80+ (26.5+)IndefiniteIndefinite

Courtesy of Cold Water Safety

How the Cold Water Affected Rescue Efforts

old passenger ship rides over the atlanticPin
old passenger ship rides over the atlantic

The freezing temperatures greatly impacted the rescue efforts after the ship’s disaster. The rescue mission, led by the White Star Line’s own rescue ship, had to contend with icy waters, strong winds, icebergs, and limited visibility.

The cold also affected the crew’s physical ability to work efficiently. In warmer waters, their task might’ve been easier and quicker, increasing the chances of survival for those awaiting rescue.

Moreover, the freezing temperatures in the water directly impacted the survival chances of the Titanic’s passengers and crew. Hypothermia set in quickly for many, reducing the time they could survive in the water.

Even those fortunate to secure spots on lifeboats weren’t immune from the cold. As they waited for the rescue ship, the freezing temperatures continued to pose a significant threat. The cold, therefore, was an insurmountable obstacle that tragically defined the Titanic’s rescue efforts.

How long did Titanic victims survive in water?

Survivors in the freezing Atlantic could only last between 15 to 30 minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. However, many people likely perished due to cardiac arrest and shock.

Understanding the deadly role the freezing waters played leads us to a question: Did anyone in the water from the Titanic survive?

Did anyone in the water from the Titanic survive?

Titanic departing Southampton on her maiden voyagePin

Despite the odds, it’s believed that between 44 and 48 people survived exposure to the freezing water.

Those that survived did so because of their proximity to lifeboats. Some people managed to cling to floating debris, while others were pulled into half-filled lifeboats. The most famous among these survivors was Charles Joughin, who reportedly treaded the icy water for two hours before his rescue.

Charles John Joughin was the chief baker aboard the RMS Titanic. When the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink on April 15, 1912, Joughin helped get Titanic passengers into lifeboats. He and his baking crew arranged to fill the lifeboats with bread rations.

Charles Joughin was assigned the role of captain for Lifeboat 10 but declined to board, making room for more passengers as there were already two sailors and a steward on the lifeboat.

He headed to his cabin for a final drink before making his way to the vessel’s poop deck. As the ship sank, Joughin stayed on board, throwing deck chairs overboard so people in the water would have something to hold onto.

Remarkably, Joughin survived the 28-degree Fahrenheit water as the Titanic sank. He tread water for over two hours before being pulled into Lifeboat B.

How did he survive the freezing water for so long?

Joughin had consumed a significant amount of alcohol. While alcohol consumption can increase the risk of hypothermia, its calming effect meant he didn’t panic in the ocean. By his own accounts, Joughin credits his survival to not panicking, swimming hard, and ensuring his head stays dry.

Charles Joughin was one of only a handful of people rescued from the water after the sinking. Though he survived the disaster, he was haunted by it for the rest of his life. Joughin gave testimony at the British and American inquiries into the Titanic disaster, providing key eyewitness accounts. His story of surviving the icy water for hours is one of the most astonishing feats of human endurance.

What would have happened if the Titanic sank in warm water?

Colorized image of the Titanic getting ready to drop anchor in SouthamptonPin

Having explored the grim reality of the few survivors who braved the icy waters when the Titanic sank, we now turn to a popular question: What would have happened if the Titanic sank in warm water?

Had the Titanic sank in warm water, more people likely would have survived. The cold water temperature was a major factor in how quickly passengers succumbed to hypothermia. As most of the passengers had life jackets, many more would have survived until help arrived.

Hypothermia is less of a risk in warm waters. Even in warmer waters of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (around 10 degrees Celsius), people can survive for as little as two hours before hypothermia takes a toll on the human body.

The first rescue ships arrived on the scene around two and a half hours after the Titanic sank. If the Titanic sank in warmer waters like the Caribbean or Bahamas (between 75°F and 85°F), many more passengers would have survived.

However, if the Titanic were in warmer waters, it likely wouldn’t have encountered the iceberg that sank the vessel.

How Long Did Titanic’s Passengers Survive In The Water?

Bridge of model of the wreck of the Titanic on the seafloorPin
Bridge of model of the wreck of the Titanic on the seafloor

A person’s survival in 28-degree F (-2-degree C) water varies but is generally between 15 to 30 minutes. The fast onset of hypothermia is believed to have caused the majority of casualties.

Interestingly, the class of ticket a passenger held played a part in their survival. First-class ticket holders had better access to the limited lifeboats compared to their counterparts with lower-class tickets. They also often had warmer clothing, providing a slight edge against the biting cold.

The Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, implemented better safety measures after the disaster. The safety improvements included a double hull along the engine and boiler rooms, raising six watertight bulkheads to B Deck, and enhancements to the watertight compartments. The Britannic also added crane-like davits powered by an electric motor. The new lifeboats could launch lifeboats faster and safer than those on the Titanic.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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