"There was no moon, but the northern lights twinkled like moonbeams bursting from the northern horizon," James Bisset wrote in his 1959 logbook.
On April 14, 1912, as the Titanic hit an iceberg, the officer was aboard the Carpathia, one of the first ships to respond to the sinking liner's SOS signal. Apparently, as this was happening, the sky above them was the scene of a show of its own: green and pink beams of northern lights.
The day of a solar storm
Mila Zinkova, an affiliate researcher at the University of California (USA), examined testimonies of the survivors of the shipwreck. They all agree on the fact that these lights were quite prominent on that day. According to the scientist, they were caused by a solar storm, and this phenomenon may have played a role in the Titanic's demise. Her theory was exposed in an article in the Royal Meteorological Society, Weather journal in August 2020.
When electrically charged particles from the Sun spread across the Earth, our planet's magnetic field channels them toward the poles. During periods of intense solar activity, these particles reach the upper atmosphere of the polar regions, where they interact with gases and form the northern lights. But at the same time, these so-called "geomagnetic" storms can interfere with human technologies, disrupting compasses and radio signals.
A hotly debated topic amongst experts
So, according to Mila Zinkova, it's possible that the lights that were seen in the sky on April 14, 1912, were caused by a solar storm that "disoriented" the compasses... and steered the ship towards the iceberg. However, other experts interviewed by Business Insider believe this theory to be unlikely. Despite the intensity of the auras, geomagnetic data from that night only reveals a small burst of activity in the Earth's magnetic field, which is not enough for it to be considered a storm.
Still, it is possible that this "magnetic weather" played a role in what happened afterwards. If it did, in fact, interfere with radio signals, that would explain why the neighbouring liner La Provence never received the distress call from the Titanic, or why the latter did not receive Mount Temple's response to its SOS. From the looks of it, the shipwreck will continue to be credited, especially by historians, to Captain Edward Smith's decision to navigate through the icy waters at full speed.