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How Long Could Cruise Ship Crash Victims Survive in Cold Waters?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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costa concordia sinking

The sinking Costa Concordia; courtsey of Wikimedia Commons/Rvongher

Rescue efforts were called off earlier today in the aftermath of a Costa Concordia shipwreck on rocks off the coast of Italy three days ago. Six of the cruise liner’s 4,200 passengers and crewmembers have been reported dead, so far, and another 15 or more remain missing.

As lifeboats filled up and malfunctioned and rescue efforts had yet to arrive on Friday, dozens of passengers took the chance and jumped into the 14-degree Celsius water to swim ashore to the nearby island of Giglio. Was this a wise move?

Chilly water cools the body down much faster than does cold air, but waters warmer than 24 degrees Celsius also can put people at risk for hypothermia, which is why even those missing passengers who might have survived the ship’s sinking might have then perished in the water.

For an explanation of how risky it is to be submerged in cold waters—and why even warm water can be dangerous for the body—read: “Hypothermia: How Long Can Someone Survive In Frigid Water?

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ASHIK 11:29 am 01/17/2012

    Chances are slim for remaining 15 members to survive from cold waters any longer.

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  2. 2. EyesWideOpen 5:31 pm 01/17/2012

    I think many of them are entombed in their cabins. Keep in mind that on cruises, many get sea sick and lose lots of fluids in various ways (i.e., vomiting, diarrhea) and confine themselves to their cabins during some meals. The ship capsized during dinner. Many were likely thrown from their beds as their cabin turned completely sideways, so that the wall became the floor. Although water may have rushed in, perhaps the air-tight design of the ship caused cabins to retain air at least partially.

    As these passengers (many feeling ill perhaps) struggled with hyperthermia in water, they used up the air remaining in their cabin. Panic would cause heavy breathing, consuming even more oxygen. How long will air in the volume of half a cabin space (maybe less) sustain a human? It’s like being trapped in a large refrigerator, where oxygen is rapidly depleted leaving atmospheric volume less oxygen.

    The missing likely endured terrible suffering, and the only solace their families may achieve is wrongful death suits, perhaps making generous contributions to their loved one’s favorite charitable organization or cause. This is very tragic.

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  3. 3. mounthell 9:48 pm 01/22/2012

    Your article is unclear (by stating: “but waters _warmer_ than 24 degrees Celsius also can put people at risk for hypothermia …”).

    How about at 37 degrees C (= 98.6 degrees F)?

    (Just a guess, but perhaps it is meant to read something like “as little as 10 degrees or so cooler than normal body temp.”)

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