Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/Icebergs and Fog in the North Atlantic

For works with similar titles, see Iceberg.


By Captain J. W. SHACKFORD.

DURING the season of 1882 the ice and fog in the track of steamers running between Europe and North America appear to have attracted much more attention than heretofore, not only in consequence of the unusual quantities of field-ice and bergs reported, but also because of the increase in the traffic, and in the number of passengers transported.

Every one who has sailed for any number of passages on the western route via 43° latitude and 50° longitude—the track usually followed in ice-months—must have often experienced the sudden change from a dense fog to fine, clear weather, and sometimes to an almost cloudless sky. This change occurs most frequently to the westward of the Grand Bank, and with the wind to the south of west; the clearing which follows a northerly wind taking place more slowly. This sudden lifting of the fog is nearly always due to a change in the temperature of the surface-water. In sailing from the 43d to the 41st parallel, between the Grand Bank and George's, 1 have occasionally known the fog to clear and shut down again many times during the twenty-four hours; and almost invariably, upon trying the surface-water, found that while the weather continued clear the surface temperature rose to between 55° and 65° Fahr., and, upon the temperature of the water falling below 55° Fahr., the fog again closed in; to be again followed by clearer weather as the ship sailed into warmer water—thus alternating from a dense fog to a clear sky and pleasant weather for hundreds of miles.

In the summer of 1875, during which great quantities of ice were encountered, I began to experiment on running south to clear the fog. Probably the idea originated from my knowledge of the courses taken by the old New York and Liverpool packets, nearly all of which, on leaving Sandy Hook, in the spring and summer months, steered east by south true until they were to the eastward of 70° longitude, and crossed the 50th meridian very rarely to the northward of 43° latitude, and generally in 42° or south of that parallel. In the course of one or two seasons, on comparing our logs of previous years and those of other steamers leaving about the same dates, with our logs on the southerly route, the conviction became irresistible that crossing 50 west to the southward of 41° latitude was the safest course eastward bound. I am fully aware of the many arguments that may be used against this southern route for both east and west bound steamers; among others, the Gulf Stream, the longer distance, the discomfort to passengers in a crowded ship, the excessive heat in the fire room, and probably many others; but, after much attention to the subject, I am convinced that these objections are more than counterbalanced by almost certain immunity from fog and ice, or the assurance that, if the latter is encountered, it will be in clear weather. I have therefore continued crossing the meridians of 50° and 45° farther to the southward every year during the ice-months, until in the present year (1882), after having made ten passages east and west, from March to August inclusive, only one hour and thirty-one minutes of fog has been encountered between Cape Henlopen and Cape Clear on the eastern passages, and that was experienced in 65° west in the month of March; and, on the western passages, nine hours and forty-three minutes in May, to the westward of 70° longitude, and six hours and thirty-six minutes in August, between the 23d and 33d meridians; while not a particle of ice has been seen during the entire season. Bergs have no doubt been reported to the southward of these tracks this year, but very rarely, and so few of them reach this latitude that the chances of seeing any are very small.

What this immunity from fog and ice means may be appreciated by any one, landsman or sailor, who will take the trouble to look over the files of the "New York Herald" for the "reports" of arrivals of steamers, or those of the New York "Maritime Register," where their logs are published. Here are a few, selected at random:

"Steamer 'Emberiza' (Br.), Dundee, February 12th, via Halifax: February 25th, 8 p. m., while running before a strong easterly wind with a heavy sea, got into immense quantities of field-ice; hauled ship to southeast and east to clear it; steamed slow all night, and received some damage to bows while clearing the ice, ship making a little water in fore compartment; 28th, 8 a. m., after three days' slow steaming, during which time the ship was at times completely blocked, passed a small iceberg and the last of the ice."—New York Herald, March 7th.

"Steamer 'Nevada' (Br.), Liverpool: April 12th, passed several large icebergs, and great quantities of field-ice."—Ibid., April 24th.

"Halifax, April 26th: The steamer 'Mark Lane' left Dundee, . . . thirty-six days ago. Three weeks ago the ice was sighted and every effort was made to keep away from it, but without success, and the steamer was soon in the midst of a vast field, with a very slight prospect of an early escape. From then until last Monday, although clear water would sometimes be reached for a short time, ice was never lost sight of. . . . Shortly after getting into the ice the coal on board gave out. . . . All the wood available was then obtained and burned, and at last the shipping (shifting?) boards had to be cut away, and even the topmast broken up for fire-wood."—Ibid., about April 27th.

"Steamer 'Daniel Stienmann' (Belg.), Antwerp, April 12th: Had strong southwest winds to longitude 40°; thence variable winds, foggy and misty weather. April 25th, passed a large iceberg; 28th, saw a large iceberg, and subsequently passed fifteen others, also an ice-field ten miles long; steered one hundred miles southwest by west one half west (south 37° west true?), when the last iceberg was passed."—Ibid., May 2d.

"Boston, May 1st: The British steamer 'Glamorgan,' of the Warren line, arrived here this morning from Liverpool. . . . About four o'clock on the morning of the 26th (April), while going eleven knots an hour, she ran into a field of pack-ice and icebergs; . . . a run of twenty miles was made to the southeast, when the ship was put on her course again. She steamed one hundred and sixty miles on the southern edge of the field-ice, and during that time passed fully one hundred large icebergs. . . . The course of the vessel was changed, as the presence of the ice made it necessary, and a long passage was the result."—Ibid., May 2d.

"Steamer 'Jason' (Dutch), Amsterdam, April 20th: May 1st, fell in with ice, and remained in it three days; passed numerous very large icebergs; had a hole stove in fore-peak."—Ibid., May 12th.

"Steamer 'India' (Ger.): May 24th, passed two icebergs during a dense fog. Slowed engines until next morning, when fog lifted and found vessel surrounded by icebergs; counted thirty-five of them. The fog shut down again, and was obliged to stop vessel several times. At 10 a. m. struck an iceberg and stove two holes in starboard bow. The last ice was seen in latitude 42° 35', longitude 52°, when three bergs were passed."—Ibid., May 31st.

"Steamer 'America' (Ger.), . . . was detained on the Banks and vicinity many hours by fog. June 10th, latitude 42° 30', longitude 50° 36', passed through a regular fleet of icebergs, one of them at least three hundred feet high; . . . weather thick and foggy, and was obliged' to proceed slowly."—Ibid., June 14th.

"Steamer 'State of Nebraska' (Br.) was detained thirty hours on the Banks by dense fog."

"Steamer 'Devonia' (Br.) was detained eighteen hours by dense fog."—Ibid., July 19th.

"Steamer 'Polaria' (Ger.) had strong westerly gales and high head-seas with dense fog nearly all the passage."—Ibid., July 20th.

"Steamer 'Devon' (Br.) sighted a large iceberg on the eastern edge of the banks; thence light winds and fog."—Ibid., July 23d.

"'Abyssinia' left Liverpool June 3d: June 11th, light wind and dense fog, passed several icebergs, engines slowed and stopped; 12th, light winds and dense fog, passed several icebergs; 13th, light southeast winds and fog, passed several icebergs, engines slowed."—New York Maritime Register, June 21st.

The above are only a few of the many instances of steamers encountering fog and ice during the last season, and sustaining more or less damage. It is difficult which to most admire, the skill and seamanship exercised in extricating some of these vessels from difficult and dangerous situations, or the pertinacity with which they continued, month after month, to follow the same track in the face of the reports published day after day in the "Herald" and "Maritime Register," with hardly any intermission, from March to August. It may be replied that the last spring and summer have been exceptional ones for ice, which is doubtless true; but, since 1875, including that year eight seasons, we have had, for the first year, ice down very early; field-ice and bergs were seen in February, and continued into September and October. For 1876, bergs and field-ice seen in the early part of the year, February; and in August, September, and October an immense number of bergs on the Banks and to the northward of them. During the three following years, very few seen; only occasional bergs, including the one seen by the Arizona in November, 1879. In the season of 1880 there was a constant stream of icebergs along the eastern edge of the Grand Bank from March until July, some of them having been seen as far south as 40° latitude. In 1881, occasional bergs; and the ice and fog of the last season are too recent to have been as yet forgotten. Here we have, out of eight seasons, four in which ice was almost certain to be encountered from two to six months in each spring and summer. In those seasons during which very little ice was reported, Low was it to be known at what moment it might not have been fallen in with? As we have seen above, in some years the ice comes down in February; perhaps the next year not until September. Can any one doubt that, the longer we continue to run without seeing ice, the more emboldened we become to continue running through the region where it is liable to be met with, in all kinds of weather, trusting partly to our escape from accident in the past for security in the future? If this is not so, the nature of shipmasters must be different from ordinary human nature; and that the observation is a true one is, I think, proved by the experience of the past season, when so many steamers continued to round the south end of the Grand Bank, voyage after voyage, in a latitude where ice was almost as certain to be encountered as the sun was sure to rise in the morning; and when it was also as certain that, by crossing the meridian of 50 a hundred miles farther to the southward, the ice could have been avoided altogether.

The facts appended are the result of careful observations, taken from June, 1875, to August of last year. The instruments were compared frequently with standards, the temperature of the water taken at least every hour, and, when changes were anticipated, sometimes every ten minutes, between Henlopen and Cape Clear, and the hours and minutes of fog noted when the whistle was blowing or when we could not see far enough to clear a vessel without difficulty. I presume it will be conceded that many more hours of hazy or misty weather would be encountered on the northern than on the southern route; the vicinity of the colder water naturally bringing with it more hours when a vigilant lookout would have to be kept, but when it would not be necessary for the steam-whistle to be sounded. The observations comprise thirty-two eastern and twenty-seven western passages, from March to August inclusive, on routes one to five, and five western passages in August, via Cape Race, on the middle of the Bank. The eastern passages, from 1875 to 1879, were sailed on track No. 3, which crosses the 50th meridian in about 41° latitude, and hauls sharp to the northward, on the Great Circle for the Fastnet. For 1880-81 track No. 4 was followed, with the exception of the March passage in 1881, when 50° longitude was crossed in 42° latitude, thereby reducing slightly the average distance for the season. During the season of 1882, track No. 5 was taken from April to August.

On the western passages, track No. 1, the route generally taken in these months, was followed as closely as possible from 1875 up to and including the June trip of 1880. The July passage of that year was made on track No. 4. For the year 1881 the earliest trip, April, was made on track No. 1; the subsequent passages on No. 4. During the present year, with the exception of the March trip, the passages have been made entirely on the extreme southern track, No. 5. In following track No. 4, on eastern passages 56 and 63, six hours and forty minutes of fog was encountered between 40° and 60° longitude, and on the western passages 56, 63, and 64, nine hours and fifty-one minutes between the same meridians. This fog, on these five passages, was found always very near the 48th meridian; the mean temperature of the surface-water, while the weather continued foggy, being 53° Fahr. in the early part of July, and 65° in the latter part of the same month; falling in a few moments from, and rising as rapidly to, 89° in the former and 78° in the latter instance. This belt of cold water, and of fog, which was entirely avoided on route No. 5 in 1882, is described in Maury's "Physical Geography of the Sea." In writing of the Gulf Stream and climates of the ocean, he says: "Navigators have often been struck with the great and sudden changes in temperature of the waters hereabout; . . . this 'bend' is the great receptacle of the icebergs which drift down from the north; covering frequently an area of hundreds of miles in extent, its waters differ as much as 20°, 25°, and in rare cases as much as 30° in temperature from those about it. Its shape and place are variable. Sometimes it is like a peninsula, or tongue of cold water, projected far down into the waters of the Gulf Stream." In May, 1881, on track No. 4, the width of this "tongue" was about fifty miles, and on the following passage in June less than thirty miles. On the latter passage I was enabled to predict its position with such certainty that I struck it inside of half an hour of the time expected. All the fog experienced on track No. 4 between the 40th and 60th meridians has been met with in this immediate vicinity. With the limited number of observations, taken only on one ship, it would no doubt be premature to give an opinion as to the fixed locality of this tongue of the Arctic current; but I can nevertheless confidently affirm that between 40° and 60° longitude, the tables below, with the observations of the temperature of the surface water, show, beyond dispute, that by an additional hundred miles of distance, the chances of meeting fog in the spring and summer months are almost, if not entirely, avoided. Whether it is worth the loss, from the additional distance, to escape fog and very nearly all the ice, is a question for each to decide for himself.

The following table shows the hours of fog and distance sailed on the voyages described above:

Track No. 1.—43° latitude, 50° longitude, to Fastnet on the Great Circle.
No. 2.—42° latitude, 50° longitude, to Fastnet on the Great Circle.
No. 3.—41° latitude, 50° longitude, to Fastnet on the Great Circle.
No. 4.—41° latitude, 50° longitude, to 42° latitude, 45° longitude, thence to Fastnet on Great Circle.
No. 5, East.—40° 30" latitude, 50° longitude, to 41° latitude, 47° longitude, thence to Fastnet on Great Circle.
No. 5, West.—Fastnet to 41° latitude, 47° longitude, thence to 40° latitude, 50° longitude, thence to Cape Henlopen.

PSM V22 D652 Eastern passages of ships in the north atlantic.png


PSM V22 D653 Eastern passages of ships in the north atlantic.png


PSM V22 D653 Western passages of ships in the north atlantic.png

All these passages on track No. 1, via 43° latitude, 50° longitude.


PSM V22 D654 Western passages of ships in the north atlantic.png


PSM V22 D654 Cape race passages of ships in the north atlantic.png

The comparisons for the different years, omitting the Cape Race passages, are as follows:


PSM V22 D655 Eastern passages of ships in the north atlantic.png


PSM V22 D655 Western passages of ships in the north atlantic.png

By the above tables the average hours of fog for each passage show a decrease in the eastern passages from seven hours forty-nine minutes in 1876 and ten hours thirty-two minutes in 1878, to three hours, and three hours and thirty-seven minutes in 1880 and 1881, and eighteen minutes in 1882; and between the sixtieth and fortieth meridians, the ice-region, from an average of seven hours eleven minutes in 1876 to one hour fifteen minutes in 1881, and an entire immunity from fog in 1882; for the western passages a decrease from an average of thirty-seven hours fifty-four minutes of each passage in 1876 to four hours fifty-nine minutes in 1881, and three hours sixteen minutes in 1882; while in crossing the ice-region the average is reduced from ten hours thirty-three minutes in 1876 to three hours thirty-three minutes in 1881, and an entire absence of fog in 1882.

Comparing the western passages via 43° latitude, 50° longitude (route No. 1), with the extreme southern passages (routes 4 and 5), the result is as follows:

via 43° latitude, 50° longitude. (Route No. 1.)

PSM V22 D656 1 Western passages of ships in the north atlantic.png

via Southern Route. (Nos. 4 and 5.)

PSM V22 D656 2 Western passages of ships in the north atlantic.png

and the comparative loss of distance as under

Average distance lost each western passage 102
Average distance lost in nine passages 918

To compensate for which loss of distance, we have

h. m.
Average of fog per passage on the northern route (track No 1) 18 41
reduced to—
Average of fog each passage on the southern route 3 33


Average of fog each passage through the ice-region by former route 7 52

reduced to—

Average of fog each passage through the same by latter route. 1 6

and, omitting the fifty-eighth voyage, have actually an average of only fourteen minutes of each passage for eight passages through the whole region of the Atlantic where ice is liable to be encountered. Another fact that should not be forgotten in the comparison is the maximum amount of fog liable to be met with (see twenty-second and thirtieth passages west) on the northern route (track No. 1).

Cape Race in August.—On this route for this month we have—

Average distance sailed each passage 2,858
Average distance sailed each passage by extreme southern route. 3,021
Loss of distance each passage 163

Against which loss of distance, we find the average of fog as above, instead of—

H. M.
Average hours of fog, Cape Race 12 17
Average hours of fog through the ice-region 4 1


Maximum amount of fog on thirty-ninth voyage 23 51

As I have seen ice on three out of five of these August passages via Cape Race, it is an open question which is the best route for this month in ordinary years. Where the ice has continued so late as in the present season, I should certainly prefer the southern route. Below is the report of the steamer Main (Ger.), via Cape Race, in July of the present year, arriving in New York on the 20th of that month: "Passed Cape Race July 18th; . . . from Sable Island to Sandy Hook had continuous fog; July 19th (?) latitude 47° 45', longitude 48° 12', passed an iceberg; same date, latitude 46° 56', longitude 52° 24', up to Cape Race, for a distance of thirty miles numerous large and small icebergs; same date, latitude 46° 11', longitude, 53° 54', two large icebergs."

Currents.—I was much surprised, on comparing the total distances, by observation and account, for these westerly passages, to find that the average current was less on the southern than on the northern route.

The following shows the comparison for the twenty-seven westerly passages:

via latitude 43°, longitude 59°. {Track No. 1.)

PSM V22 D658 Current timetable of western crossing northern route.png

via Southern Route. (Tracks Nos. 4. and 5.)

PSM V22 D658 Current timetable of western crossing southern route.png

As long as our navigation laws of the last century continue unrepealed, probably the facts contained in the above tables will be of little interest to steamship-owners in the United States; but underwriters and shippers are certainly concerned, as to the proportion of steamers in the North Atlantic trade that escape from or meet with detention, accident, or loss. The immense proportions that the traffic between Europe and the United States is bound to assume within the next fifty years appear to make it almost a necessity that the ocean between the two countries should be as well known as the country between New York and San Francisco, or between Liverpool and London. That this subject has been almost a matter of indifference to the governments interested, until very recently, can not be better illustrated than by the fact, almost incredible, but nevertheless true, that a shoal on the eastern edge of the Grand Bank, directly in the track of steamers running between the two countries for the greater portion of the year, marked "Ryder Rock, twenty-one feet, position doubtful," was laid down on the charts published by the British Admiralty and United States Hydrographic Offices, until 1879, in which year the bank was resurveyed, and the shoal found to have had no existence. The United States and British Governments have recently spent thousands of dollars in Arctic explorations and relief expeditions, one of the results of which has been to show how gallantly death can be encountered. Surely, a few thousands would be well expended in the survey of this ocean highway on which thousands of lives are constantly afloat; and certainly government ships might be worse employed than in an attempt to give greater security to life and property on its treacherous surface.

If the publication of these two articles[9] should be the means of causing one ship-master to try the southern route, or deter one steamer from ramming into an ice-field on the eastern edge of the Grand Bank, in the spring of the year, the writer will be amply repaid for any time and trouble they may have cost him.

  1. In longitude 65° west, between tracks No. 2 and No. 3.
  2. West of 70 longitude.
  3. Between 23° and 33° west.
  4. One passage, southern route (track No. 4).
  5. Two passages, southern route (track No. 4).
  6. One passage, southern route (track No. 4). Four passages, southern route (track No. 5).
  7. West of longitude 70.
  8. Between 23 and 33 west.
  9. See the first article, in "Harper's Magazine" for August, 1882.