NCDC Marine Data Stars in Titanic Documentary

When researchers and filmmakers Scott Woodruff and Tim Maltin needed data for their documentary Titanic: Case Closed, they turned to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) archive, which contains hundreds of millions of records stretching back as far as the mid-1700s. In particular, they sought out NCDC archivist, Eric Freeman, a Marine Operations Coordinator, whom they had collaborated with on a past project.

Freeman provided the researchers with 75 Greenwich Mean Noon (GMN) ship observation forms from April 1912 containing air and sea surface temperatures in the vicinity of the Titanic wreck site. This was the most significant source of data in the world that Maltin and his team could find in their quest to prove what really happened that tragic night in April 1912. In addition to the data, these documents also contained observer comments and sketches of sea ice that proved to be just as valuable. Some of these comments included ominous phrases such as “much refraction on the horizon.”

These comments and data established the framework for Matlin’s new theory that a mirage actually played a major role in the sinking of the Titanic. Observations recorded in the logbooks provided evidence of a strong thermal inversion in the area, 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 would also have scrambled the Titanic’s Morse code signal and caused their distress rockets to appear lower in the sky to nearby ships, making the rescue effort exceedingly difficult.

Titanic: Case Closed brings to life the meteorological conditions of the night and explains Matlin’s theory in detail with vivid effects and dramatic first-hand accounts. The documentary features NCDC’s data while highlighting the center’s preservation efforts. Eric Freeman was personally interviewed for the documentary, and the crew even spent time filming in the NCDC archive. The 96-minute documentary aired on the National Geographic Channel and the Smithsonian Channel in April 2012, in line with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.