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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Ocean reclaiming Titanic liner
BBC Northern Ireland's environment correspondent Mike McKimm helped place a plaque to the hundreds who died in the Titanic disaster. On a dive to the ill-fated ship he discovered that the once magnificent liner is disintegrating into the Atlantic, her resting place for the past 93 years.

The Titanic is being eaten away by bacteria which form 'rusticles'
The Titanic is being eaten away by bacteria which form 'rusticles'
"She is falling apart" - the comments of one diver emerging from a Russian Mir submersible after a recent dive to Titanic.

And she is falling apart. I went down as a novice and was expecting to see a grand ship in good condition. I was there to help place a plaque to the hundreds who died in the disaster.

It bore the message: "In memory of all those who died on RMS Titanic. From Harland and Wolff and the people of Belfast."

The liner, built at the city's famous shipyard, hit an iceberg on 14 April 1912. She was nearly 900 feet long, stood 25 stories high, and weighed 46,000 tons.

At 12,850 feet, at the bottom of the Atlantic, there is no oxygen so, in theory, no rusting can take place. But I had not reckoned on bacteria being there.

In fact, the ship is in a terrible shape and the deterioration is getting faster and faster.

The iconic bow of the Titanic remains unmistakable

Decks are collapsing. Any structures that remained standing after the sinking, are now starting to topple and show signs of being unstable.

The ship has become unsafe and some divers won't approach certain parts because of the dangers.

Submersible pilots tell of seeing the roof of one section ripple from the force of the sub's propellers as she glided past.

If there is no rust because of a lack of oxygen to make the process work, then what is destroying the ship?

The answer, we now know, is bacteria. These micro-organisms are eating the manganese, iron and sulphur out of the steel.

It has the same effect as conventional rusting, weakening the structure. Uniquely the bacteria form "homes" called "rusticles" because of their icicle shape.

The Titanic
Hit iceberg on 14 April 1912 - sank next day
Wreck lies about 365 nautical miles off Newfoundland
Sank in 12,850 feet of water
More than 1,500 passengers and crew lost
About 700 survivors
Weighed about 46,000 tons

The rusticles hang in huge veils all around the ship. Regular visitors to Titanic comment on how much more of the ship is covered by the bacteria every time they visit the wreck.

It is bacteria that are contributing to Titanic's demise. Because of the unique environment at this depth, few other organisms can survive.

A wreck in a few hundred metres of water would be covered by lots of plants and organisms and would also be rusting conventionally but slowly.

The bacteria would find it hard going. But two and a half miles down in the Atlantic, the bacteria have no competition. The steel sides are theirs to latch onto and eat.

Lori Johnston, a Canadian scientist has dived on Titanic a number of times to study the rusticles.

"Titanic is not the only ship with rusticles but it is an example of almost pure rusticle form."

The base of the forward mast is still visible

Lori and her colleagues have been trying to get some idea of how much steel is being eaten away.

"The microbes will eventually collapse the ship through a natural process that has been going on for millennia.

"The research we have done so far indicates that the bacteria are taking out .3 of a gram per centimetre squared per day so that is a lot of iron that is coming out of the ship."

It's estimated that about 300 kilos of steel is disappearing from the front part of Titanic every day.

Those figures were estimations made about five years ago. Given the spread of the rusticles, the annual loss of steel is probably much faster these days.

One expert told the BBC that the "rusting" is exponential. It's getting faster and faster as the rusticles spread and start to create pits and hollows in the steel. This creates more surface area for them to work on.

This is the location of the ship's once magnificant main staircase
So how long will Titanic last? Lori Johnston offers some figures.

"We predict in between 80 and 100 years you will probably still see the U-shaped hull but all the decks will have collapsed in."

Others put a different time on it. Some suggest that much of the ship could collapse into itself in 20-40 years given the present rate of collapse.

There is one benefit of the collapse. It's now possible to see parts of the interior once hidden.

Scientists estimate that in about 250 years Titanic will have gone
Mike McKimm

The side had fallen out of Captain Smith's quarters. He was the captain on the ship when she hit the iceberg in 1912 and he died in the sinking.

But now his enamel bath, complete with taps, is clearly in view. Not that important from an archaeological viewpoint, but a curious glimpse into the human side of the great ship. A reminder of the terrible human tragedy that is part of the ship's history.

And what of the future? Well, scientists estimate that in about 250 years Titanic will have gone.

She will not outlast the great wooden ships of the past or provide an exciting find for archaeologists in 2,000 years' time.

In a couple of centuries she will have reverted back to iron ore - a vast isolated deposit on the Atlantic seabed. And all because of bacteria.

A curious end for a ship that became a legend even before she sank.

Watch pictures of the Titanic's resting place

A Titanic dive to remember
17 Oct 05 |  Northern Ireland
Titanic tourist project unveiled
11 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland
Titanic task for matchstick man
28 Apr 05 |  South West Wales
Titanic menu among auction relics
14 Apr 05 |  Northern Ireland


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