Findings: Titanic victims in 'cold shock'

May 24, 2002

When the Titanic went down, it tipped 1,489 people into the icy Atlantic Ocean, writes Caroline Davis. Although all were wearing lifejackets and the water was calm, none survived longer than two hours. The official inquiry gave drowning as the cause of death in all cases, although evidence pointed to hypothermia.

By the second world war, hypothermia was recognised as a significant problem, but soon came to be seen as the only problem associated with immersion in cold water, said Michael Tipton, professor of pure and applied physiology in the sport and exercise department of Portsmouth University.

"Research shows that the vast majority of people die within minutes," Professor Tipton said. "Two-thirds die within 10ft of safe refuge - and 60 per cent of those are good swimmers."

Contrary to popular belief, he explained, most people who fall into cold water do not die of hypothermia as deaths occur too quickly.

Instead, they are incapacitated by "cold shock", a set of responses seen on initial immersion that include uncontrollable hyperventilation and an increased heart rate that is triggered by a rapid fall in skin temperature and is responsible for most deaths within minutes of hitting the water.

Subjects cannot hold their breath for more than a few seconds, increasing the likelihood of taking in water and drowning. And increased stress on the heart can prompt a heart attack.

Professor Tipton's work has applications from the military through to the oil industry and leisure activities. Up to 10 million people in the UK take part in water-based leisure activities every year and 700 people die by drowning.

Understanding the body's reaction to cold water immersion and subsequently developing appropriate emergency procedures and aids could save many lives.

The research group's latest results will be presented at the International Conference on Environmental Ergonomics in Japan later this year.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Post-doctoral Research Associate in Chemistry

University Of Western Australia

PACE Data Support Officer

Macquarie University - Sydney Australia

Associate Lecturer in Nursing

Central Queensland University
See all jobs

Most Commented

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi

Michael Parkin illustration (9 March 2017)

Cramming study into the shortest possible time will impoverish the student experience and drive an even greater wedge between research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff, says Tom Cutterham