Titanic Is Falling Apart

Emory Kristof - National Geographic


By Brian Handwerk - National Geographic News


Slipping beneath the waves on April 15, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic famously disappeared from view until 1985, when it was rediscovered on the bottom of the North Atlantic. 

Now, scientists say, the legendary liner—beset by metal-eating life-forms, powerful currents, and possibly even human negligence—could be vanishing for good.

Titanic is falling apart.

Already explorers have documented caved-in roofs, weakening decks, a stern perhaps on the edge of collapse, and the disappearance of Titanic's crow's nest—from which lookout Frederick Fleet spotted history's most infamous iceberg.

"Everyone has their own opinion" as to how long Titanic will remain more or less intact, said research specialist Bill Lange of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

"Some people think the bow will collapse in a year or two," Lange said. "But others say it's going to be there for hundreds of years."

With Lange as optical-survey leader, a new expedition sets sail Sunday from St. John's, Newfoundland — roughly 350 miles (560 kilometers) from the ship's 2.4-mile-deep (3.8-kilometer-deep) resting place.

The goal: to virtually preserve Titanic in its current state and to finally determine just how far gone the shipwreck is, and how long it might last.

"We're trying to bring the actual hard data to the people who can make those determinations," Lange said.

The 20-day Expedition Titanic will use remotely operated submersibles to complete an unprecedented archaeological analysis of the two- by three-mile (three- by five-kilometer) debris field, including Titanic's two halves. The ship's bow and stern separated before sinking and now lie a third of a mile (half a kilometer) apart.

Thousands of high-resolution photos and video will be combined with acoustic and sonar mapping data to form a 3-D replica of the site, allowing scientists and armchair explorers to probe it in detail. (Explore a 2004 photomosaic of the Titanic wreck.)

Some photos will reveal never before seen parts of Titanic, organizers say. Other images, when compared to evidence from earlier years, will help experts gauge the rate of the wreck's deterioration.

Expedition Titanic will gather hard data too, for example by measuring the thickness of the ship's hull and by hauling up and examining experimental steel platforms placed at the site.

In addition, scientists will take readings of the surrounding water to uncover its ability to support marine life—a prime cause of Titanic's deterioration.

P.H. Nargeolet, co-leader of Expedition Titanic, made more than 30 submersible dives to the Titanic site in the 1980s and '90s—and saw it decline all the while.

Between 1987 and 1993, Nargeolet observed the gymnasium roof corroding and collapsing as well as the upper promenade deck deteriorating. On an early '90s dive he saw that the crow's nest—previously seen still attached to the forward mast—had disappeared altogether, apparently damaged to the point where it snapped off and fell to an as yet unidentified location (interactive Titanic wreck diagram).

"In some places I saw a lot of difference, and in others almost nothing visible has happened," said Nargeolet, director of underwater research for RMS Titanic, Inc., a for-profit corporation that has retrieved Titanic artifacts for traveling exhibitions.

"For example, the stern section was the most destroyed part of the ship when it sank, and now most of the stern section is collapsed," he said. "The bow is pretty narrow and the strongest part of the ship, and it's still in relatively good condition."


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