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Telegram That Could Have Changed History

telegram sent by SS AmerikaOn the 14th of April 1912, during the R.M.S. Titanic's maiden voyage, a smaller ship, the German-flagged S.S. Amerika was also steaming for the United States just ahead of them.

When the Amerika encountered several large icebergs near 41°27'N, 50°8'W—in the middle of the Atlantic—she passed the message on to the hydrographic office (a precursor to the Defense Mapping Agency Hydrographic Center) in Washington, D.C., via the Titanic's radio relay.

The Amerika's radio antennae were not large enough to get messages to the ground relay station at Cape Race, Newfoundland, Canada from her distance, and it was common practice for other larger ships to relay messages. As a result of this radio relay, the Titanic actually had the location of the icebergs that they struck one day later.

The resultant fallout from this maritime disaster put into motion the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention in 1914, which, after subsequent meetings, includes a global requirement for baseline weather forecasts to ensure safer ocean voyages worldwide. The United States was one of the original signatories of this convention.

Today, the National Weather Service, through the Ocean Prediction Center, National Hurricane Center, and Honolulu, Hawaii Weather Forecast Office, assumed the obligation to issue warnings and forecasts for the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans.

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Finding Dangers at Sea

Radio OperatoSince the earliest days of ocean travel, navigators rely on depth measurements – depicted in nautical charts, conveyed in navigation directions, or appearing in today's electronic navigational charts – to know where underwater dangers lurk. Before the Titanic tragedy, hydrographic surveyors measured ocean depths and looked for dangers to navigation with tools like hand-held ropes weighted with pieces of lead, or expanses of wire that could be dragged mechanically along the seafloor bottom. To accurately depict the ocean depths and obstructions on charts, surveyors had to rely on visual means to obtain their position.

Following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, there were concerted efforts to develop acoustic methods of discovering hazards in the water. In 1923, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (NOAA's predecessor organization) developed radio acoustic ranging, which could determine a ship's location. By combining the velocity of sound in water with radio, RAR was the first non-visual navigation system that enabled surveyors to establish their position at sea. RAR was used as a navigation method until World War II, when electronic navigation systems were developed.

Today, NOAA produces a wealth of information to ensure safe voyages. Most modern cruise ships use electronic navigational charts to steer clear of dangers.

fathometer soundings and radio acoustic ranging. showing two methods employed by the geodetic survey to insure on nautical correc water depths

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Unraveling the Mystery of the Titanic
NOAA's National Climatic Data Center Provides Data Critical to Titanic Researchers

weather log
March 27 through April 13, 1912 observations from the S.S. Deutschland in the vicinity of the Titanic wreck site. The logbook contains observations, notes and sketches detailing ice fields and icebergs that would eventually sink the Titanic. (Credit: NOAA) Click here to download the pdf.

One hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic, a mystery still surrounds the cause of the events on that tragic night in April 1912. On a clear night, under a sky of bright stars, how could two expertly trained lookouts miss an enormous iceberg lying directly in the ship's path? Furthermore, why did it take so long for help to arrive? NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) may finally have given researchers the information needed to conclusively answer these questions.

Researchers used NCDC's data archive, which contains hundreds of millions of records stretching back as far as the mid-1700s, as their most significant source to uncover the real reason the Titanic sank. NCDC archivists provided researchers with 75 Greenwich Mean Noon (GMN) ship observation forms from April 1912 containing air and sea surface temperatures in the vicinity of the wreck site. These documents also contained observer comments and sketches of sea ice that proved to be just as valuable as the data. Some of these comments included ominous phrases such as "much refraction on the horizon."

These comments and data would establish the framework for British Titanic historian, Tim Matlin's new theory that a mirage actually played a major role in causing the Titanic to sink. Observations recorded in the logbooks provided evidence of the recent arrival of the cold water Labrador Current in the area. This current cooled the warm air above the Gulf Stream from the bottom up resulting in a strong thermal inversion, which causes light to bend. This refraction would have made the horizon appear higher than normal, camouflaging the iceberg from view until it was too late. The temperature inversion, with the warmer air aloft, would also have scrambled the Titanic's Morse code signal and caused the distress rockets to appear lower in the sky to nearby ships, making the rescue effort exceedingly difficult.

These data records, never before used in such a capacity, also assisted Matlin and his team in the production of Titanic: Case Closed, a 96-minute documentary that explains his theory in detail with vivid effects and dramatic first-hand accounts. However, these records might not have even been available without the preservation work of the Climate Database Modernization Program (CDMP) at NCDC. The CDMP team imaged the century-old forms to permanently preserve them and make them digitally available to others. Without the work of NOAA, the story of the Titanic might have remained a mystery forever.


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