Dr. John Hollins, past Chair CACOR, writes on the Science of missing MH370.
It is highly unlikely that any evidence will ever be found of the 2014 March 8 Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
In an age where information is just a few clicks away, the inclination to jump to conclusions is hard to fight
On 2014 March 8, flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared after losing contact with air traffic control less than an hour after takeoff. Investigators subsequently concluded that the aircraft had diverted substantially from its intended course: the best available information indicated that MH370 went down in the vast, remote, deep, and hostile waters of the Southern Indian Ocean.
Early speculation around terrorism, the demand for answers from the public, misinformation and false expectations communicated by the authorities, and a frenzied media looking for fresh angles to the story all fuelled false reporting and misplaced theories, which undermined the search efforts.
The analysis reported here of the MH370 event is a result of the business model of Maritime Way Scientific, a Canadian company growing its reputation on hard data, solid science, and a global network of multidisciplinary experts.
Many oceanographic factors made the search very challenging:
- The vastness of the Indian Ocean basin makes it near impossible to find a speck of evidence;
- Prevailing sea conditions are among the roughest on earth: they rapidly disperse, mask, and submerge any surface debris or oil slick;
- Prevailing currents are strong and consistent: even if an item of debris remained on the surface, it would travel around the world without hitting land — ever;
- Satellite imagery of the air space and sea surface in the region at the time of the crash was sparse: it is not collected routinely because the region is of little commercial or military interest;
- The seafloor is mountainous and rugged: which would obscure or mask the view of any submerged debris by sonar devices;
- Absorption in the water column of pings from a black box in such very deep water, combined with the ambient noise of the ocean, means that a detector would have to pass almost directly above the black box in order to detect it: detection in this depth of water depends absolutely on having solid information about the likely position of the black-box, a matter in this case of rough inference and conjecture.
Following a loss at sea, the first task is to delineate the most likely zone, which was little better than conjecture in this case. The first evidence is generally floating debris, which, if found within two weeks, provides a lead to the pings from the black box; no debris from MH370 has been found, although there were many false alarms.
The black-box pinger would have stopped when its battery was exhausted — after some 30 days. That leaves debris on the seafloor as the last remaining possibility for finding anything. The search for seafloor debris, however, is complicated by the extreme depth, rugged seafloor, and very uncertain information about where to focus the search in a vast, hostile ocean.
By way of comparison, on 2009 June 1, Air France Flight 447 departed Rio de Janeiro en route to Paris and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. It took two years to find the wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, only 10km from the flight’s last-known position. The last-known position of MH370 is estimated to be 7 hours —5,500 km at cruising speed — before the loss of the aircraft.
One would be more likely to find a needle in a haystack than the black box of MH370, if it is indeed in the depths of the Southern Indian Ocean. Will MH370 ever be found? In a word, no. In this case, the hard science begets tough truths.
This study disclosed that the southern ocean is a sea of trash, a testament to mankind’s continuing ignorance of and disregard for the natural environment. The trash caused authorities to respond repeatedly to false sightings of aircraft debris.
Much of the world’s ocean floor remains unmapped and our knowledge of ocean dynamics and bottom features is insufficient to aid with the detection of anomalies, such as locating a missing aircraft or ship.
Much attention was given to the autonomous underwater vehicle, Bluefin 21, but it exceeded its maximum operating depth of 4,575m and its built-in safety system caused it to return to the surface before collecting any information.
In an age where information is just a few clicks away or the flick of a TV channel, the inclination to jump to conclusions is hard to fight
[i] This note was distilled by John Hollins from a paper by Martin Taillefer in Vol. 42, No. 4 of the Bulletin of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.