When the snow falls, the properties of water perform a delicate dance. Snowflakes fall as dominoes fall. A lump of dust forms a crystal, and the appearance of that crystal attracts more crystals until they form long dendrites around the speck of dust like ants around a piece of chocolate. As long as the growing snowflake remains lighter than air, it will float. But as soon as one more crystal crosses the tipping point, the structure will succumb to gravity and fall.
Snow tends to fall where other snow has already fallen. And while every snowflake is different, they’re not as unique as we’ve been told. They start out as spheres and form tendrils to diffuse heat. Cold temperatures produce flakes that look like balls or needles. Very cold weather is when you find the classic shape of a six-sided prism, or the fern-like crystal with six radiating branches.
It is probably this fern-like form of snow that fell one day, fifteen thousand years ago, on the Greenland ice sheets. The landmass was already covered in ice two miles thick. Over time, the cool flakes sank into the ice, hidden from daylight and compressed by pressure to a third of their original size.
According to the geology, thousands of years have passed and not much has happened. The snow that started as flakes turned into dense glacial ice as it moved rapidly, around four miles a year, towards the west coast of Greenland. The ice weakens as it approaches the coast, as every day, especially in summer, huge walls of ice break off from the glacier and fall into the ocean.
This is how ocean icebergs are formed. But it was one iceberg in particular that fell in the summer of 1909 that would drift into infamy. Too briefly to name, this iceberg was over two miles wide and one hundred feet high when it started, large enough to dwarf Rome’s Colosseum and all the pyramids put together, at least before it began to melt. It would tower over the largest steamship ever designed, which was also formed that summer of 1909.
This steamer, the Titanic, was designed with a competitive ambition of size and opulence. It would be the largest and most luxurious liner to ever float. Built over three years, she was a triplet, designed by the White Star Line with two sister ships, the Olympic (1911) and the slightly larger British (1915). They were designed to transport the rich, famous and well-connected across the Atlantic in ornate cabins with elegant Victorian amenities. The most expensive ticket Titanicjust north of $60,000 in today’s dollars, granted a passenger access to an elite dining room, oak-paneled meeting rooms, a Turkish bath, a saltwater swimming pool, huge bay windows and a traveling orchestra.
None of these amenities mattered for a long time. The ship rolled out of a drydock in Northern Ireland in early 1912 and stopped for pickups in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before heading west for New York . When completed, the manifest numbered just over 2,200 people, more than a third of them crew. Yet four days into its first transatlantic crossing, after the ship’s famous contact with the ice, all but 710 of them are said to be floating dead on the surface, or worse, ripped deep from the ocean floor.
Back then, humans knew little about the behavior of icebergs, except that most melted somewhere within the Arctic Circle. John Thomas Towson, a dedicated marine scientist who wrote a book titled Practical information on compass deviation, observed in 1857 that icebergs were no different—and no softer—than rocks formed over millennia by time and pressure. Towson knew that icebergs posed an existential danger to the wooden hulls of 19th century ships. Steel hulls were invincible, he said, but that was based on assumptions, not experience. Such extreme numbers of icebergs traveled south through the Eastern Strait of the Grand Banks in eastern Newfoundland that in 1912 the United States Coast Guard dubbed the area “iceberg alley.”
For three years, the ice mass swayed and rippled in the arctic waters. At some point he traveled north and spent the summer of 1910 further towards the North Pole. Then he caught the Labrador Current, which carries freezing water south. Most icebergs melt in their first year. A few last two. Only a handful of last three because eventually the Labrador Current meets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which acts like an ocean microwave. Only 1% of icebergs in the northern hemisphere survive in this desert area, and finally, only one in several thousand would reach 41 degrees north, at the same latitude as New York and directly in the path of transatlantic ships.
When the Titanic sank in 1912, it plunged two and a half miles and touched the seabed at over thirty miles an hour. The ship’s ocean grave was so remote that its location remained a mystery until 1985, when a team that benefited from government-developed submarines and deep-sea craft were able to take blurry snapshots. It took seventy-three years, almost the entire span of a human life, to find the most illustrious and fascinating shipwreck of all time.
This course of events has become so widely known – retold endlessly in films, books, museum exhibits, consumer products and television specials on repeat – that it’s easy to forget the detail. most amazing: how nearly it didn’t happen. Icebergs had been hitting ships for as long as there had been ships to hit, but the one that brought down the largest ocean liner ever built was almost gone. After three years adrift, the icy mass probably had only a week to live, two at the most. He was getting smaller as he waded through warmer water. As the icebergs melt from the bottom. They become heavy and roll over, followed by more erosion and more roll overs, until finally, when they have been reduced to the size of a basketball, they constantly roll over until that there is nothing left.
By some estimates, more icebergs are floating today than in the days of the Titanic, largely due to warmer water causing glaciers to calve more frequently. Advances in radar, GPS, and aircraft surveillance, along with larger, better-designed ships, have reduced the danger of icebergs to ships. But icebergs remain a threat. In 2007, a small cruise ship near Antarctica called the MS Explorer was hit by an invisible iceberg. After the piece slashed the starboard side, the passengers rushed to the lifeboats and were rescued several hours later by another nearby cruise ship.
But no iceberg will ever be as famous as the a. Any other week and a ship no one believed capable of sinking would complete its maiden voyage and turn back for its second ho-hum. Any other day and the iceberg would have been a fraction of its dangerous size. Any other time and it would have been hundreds of yards away. But the ship expected nothing, and the ice knew nothing to expect, and the ingenuity of humans at the dawn of modern invention succumbed, unbelievably enough, to the force of several crushed snowflakes as hard as the rock.
Of SUBVISABLE by Daniel Stone, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Pierre.