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In the Library

Whose Iceberg Sank the Titanic?

20 June 2022
Skidmore, a passenger on the Carpathia, from survivor Jack Thayer Jr.'s description:

Top-left: Strikes starboard bow - 12 ft. AW. 11:45 PM.
Middle-left: Settles by head - boats ordered out. 12:05 AM.
Bottom left: Settles to forward stacks. Breaks between stacks. 1:40 AM.
Top-right: Forward end floats, then sinks. 1:50 AM.
Middle-right: Stern section pivots amidships and swings over spot where forward section sank. 2:00 AM.
Bottom-right: Last position in which Titanic stayed 5 min. before the final plunge.
Skidmore, a passenger on the Carpathia, from survivor Jack Thayer Jr.'s description: Top-left: Strikes starboard bow - 12 ft. AW. 11:45 PM. Middle-left: Settles by head - boats ordered out. 12:05 AM. Bottom left: Settles to forward stacks. Breaks between stacks. 1:40 AM. Top-right: Forward end floats, then sinks. 1:50 AM. Middle-right: Stern section pivots amidships and swings over spot where forward section sank. 2:00 AM. Bottom-right: Last position in which Titanic stayed 5 min. before the final plunge.

by Corine Wood-Donnelly

Have you ever wondered what country could be liable for the sinking of the Titanic if iceberg sovereignty was an established principle under international law?

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is a landmark event for international maritime law. After this disaster, the International Ice Patrol was set up to monitor and report on the movements of icebergs. It also resulted in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which introduced changes to telecommunication practices (i.e., on board radios), safety parameters (i.e., lifeboats) and responding to vessels in distress. The event revealed a weakness in the legal system and, as a result, in safety standards, but no one ever asked who owned the iceberg that sank the ship once thought to be unsinkable.

There are good reasons for this. One reason is that around this time much of the discussion about the use and possession of icebergs was trying to determine if they could be treated as land and thus be subjected to sovereignty claims. Explorers had just been racing to the North Pole and the scientists who lived on ice islands were soon to follow them. These debates were largely focused on shelf ice, which is frozen sea, unlike the freshwater glacier bit of an iceberg that sank the Titanic.

Photograph of the RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10 1912 by Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart

But the question of iceberg sovereignty is more pertinent than ever in the 21st Century. Until the effects of climate change on mountain glaciers and polar ice emerged, ice wasn’t thought of as a scarce resource and ownership of the resource hadn’t been a concern. With increasing evidence that most glaciers are disappearing and multi-year sea ice is thinning, ice is disappearing from the landscape as it melts. In this, the world’s largest reservoir of freshwater is also disappearing, drop by drop.

With ice framed as an important source of drinking water, issues of ownership–or at least of protection–are more pressing. Industrial activity of any kind is prone to impact on local environments, and it would be advantageous to think about these impacts—and the impacts of resource conflict with a precautionary approach—and before fragile ecosystems are compromised.

There are a number of ways to think about where to send the bill for the Titanic, but it depends on whether glacier ice is defined as mineral, or as water, such as permanent sovereignty or riparian rights. To make the issue even more complicated, it also depends on which principles of international law are applied–such as those related to permanent sovereignty, those related to rivers and watersheds or those that come from the law of the sea. In the Arctic it could be clear who has ‘rights’ to exploit ice within certain areas, but for ice coming from Antarctica the question has an extra layer of complexity if rights are associated with sovereignty rather than the commons.

While that infamous iceberg had significant impact on many legal rules relating to shipping safety, it somehow managed to escape drawing attention to its own status in international law. Until today it is still unclear who exactly would have owned that iceberg–Greenland (Denmark), Canada, or all of humanity. Yet if any object in nature deserved a legal personality, perhaps is that iceberg. Instead, it was gone in a few days as it melted into the warm waters of the Atlantic, with only a blurry photo and its legacy of sinking the unsinkable ship to mark that it ever existed.


Corine Wood-Donnelly is an Associate Professor of International Relations & the High North at Nord University in Norway. She is the Scientific Coordinator for JUSTNORTH, an EU Horizon 2020 project on sustainable development in the Arctic, coordinated from Uppsala University in Sweden.

You can read her article on ‘Iceberg Sovereignty’ at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2022.105139