In the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, 105 years ago this month, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Because the vessel had only 20 lifeboats, capable of carrying about half the 2,224 people on board, more than 1,500 people died.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was widespread recognition that maritime safety needed to improve. In November 1913, a group of nations, including the U.S., convened the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in London. During the convention, a number of safety requirements were enacted, including a requirement that vessels carry enough lifeboats to accommodate all people on board and another that the ship’s radio be manned at all times (a practice that was not in place on the Titanic). In addition, the convention formed the International Ice Patrol to monitor and report on the location of North Atlantic icebergs that drifted into regular transatlantic shipping lanes.
The patrol is run by the U.S. Coast Guard and funded by 17 member countries, including the U.S. Since 1983 it has operated out of Connecticut (previous locations included Newfoundland and Governors Island, New York). Currently housed at Fort Trumbull in New London, the unit worked out of the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center at the University of Connecticut, Avery Point, in Groton until 2009.
Despite the important work the Ice Patrol performs, it’s far from well known. “Even within the Coast Guard you can probably go up to anyone, even in the station that’s right here by my office at Fort Trumbull, and ask what’s the Ice Patrol? And they wouldn’t know,” says Commander Gabrielle McGrath, the patrol’s commanding officer. “It’s a very small, very niche mission.”
That’s a shame, because for more than 100 years the Ice Patrol has performed important work with great success. During iceberg season, from the beginning of February to the end of August, the patrol issues a daily iceberg warning that designates the “iceberg limit,” essentially an imaginary line in the ocean, beyond which vessels are advised not to navigate. Since the formation of the Ice Patrol after the Titanic disaster, no vessel that has heeded the Ice Patrol’s warnings and stayed south of the iceberg limit has collided with an iceberg. “That’s something that we’re very proud of,” McGrath says.
Those who have ignored the warnings have not always avoided collisions with icebergs. In 2010, a ship struck an iceberg north of the iceberg limit. Though no one was killed, the ship suffered serious damage.
Since its formation, the methods of the Ice Patrol have changed, but the mission — to monitor the most-southern-floating icebergs in the North Atlantic and keep ships safe from collisions — has remained unchanged. For many years after the Titanic disaster, this mission was accomplished by ships patrolling the northern waters of the Atlantic. “They would find the southernmost iceberg and they would stay on station with it until it melted,” McGrath says. “When it melted they would find the next southernmost iceberg and stay there.”
After World War II, visual observations began to be made from planes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Ice Patrol tried bombing icebergs, but the explosions actually created a larger problem of having more and smaller, but still dangerous, icebergs to track.
Over the years, radar on planes replaced the visual observations of the plane crew. Today, even in the Google Earth era, when getting a satellite image of one’s house or apartment is commonplace, plane patrols still account for the most important data the Ice Patrol utilizes. Satellite images are used to monitor icebergs in more northern regions of the Atlantic, but so far the satellites miss about 50 percent of icebergs, so their data is not utilized within shipping lanes. Instead, information about icebergs within more southern regions of the North Atlantic has to be gathered the semi-old-fashioned way.
During iceberg season, twice a month four or five members of the 16-person Ice Patrol team leave New London for a nine- to 10-day mission in Newfoundland. From Newfoundland they conduct about a half-dozen flights with Coast Guard flight crews, surveying the entire region of the Atlantic at risk for icebergs. The flights last between seven and nine hours, and during each flight about 30,000 square miles of ocean is scanned for icebergs.
The amount of southern-drifting icebergs spotted in a given year varies significantly, but McGrath says there’s no overarching trend from global climate change. In 2013, there were only 13 icebergs observed in shipping lanes, far fewer than normal. In 2014, there were 1,546, which was the sixth most on record. Last year, the number observed in shipping lanes was a more moderate 687 icebergs.
Though it is far less known than the Titanic tragedy that inspired its creation, the International Ice Patrol remains well known among one important group: seafarers. “Ships know about us for sure,” McGrath says. And when it comes to avoiding iceberg collisions, that’s what matters most.