With a dearth of new pings and the batteries driving the two black boxes’ signal beacons inevitably fading, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 may be forced to re-emphasize finding surface debris.
While recent attention has been on possible ping detections from the aircraft’s two black boxes, Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, told Forbes.com that’s most of what’s left of null
If so, such debris has likely been drifting due west since the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean on the morning of March 8th local time.
But as Forbes.com reported earlier, by using computer models the debris’ drift trajectories could still be retraced back to within a hundred miles or so of the crash point.
This kind of backtracking may not represent the pinpoint accuracies of successful multi-pass sonar triangulation on the missing 777’s two black boxes, but it would give searchers new options.
For weeks, searchers and oceanographers alike have puzzled over why after cumulatively searching hundreds of thousands of square miles no one has found a verifiable piece of MH370 debris.
One explanation could be that the debris is simply well west of the search zones, the center of which lies some 2200 km (1365 mi) northwest of Perth.
“I realized that this northernmost search area was a game changer, and that a lot of the debris could be further west than the search areas,” van Sebille said by phone from Sydney.
Van Sebille says by now, the aircraft’s debris may have moved up to 700 km (420 mi) west from its initial crash point. Although because of the “general mixing of the ocean,” he says there could still be some debris that instead moved eastward.
Van Sebille made his calculations by using Adrift.org.au, a scientific website dedicated to tracking global ocean circulation. There, he entered coordinates of a point near the center of the northernmost search area. He found that most of the ocean circulation from the Indian Ocean Gyre trended westward.
As van Sebille explains, each of Earth’s five oceans have separate gyres (or large rotating circular surface currents).
On the African side of the Indian Ocean’s elliptical gyre, the Agulhas ocean current runs south in a very narrow band toward the South Pole. Van Sebille says the Agulhas is a western boundary current that is eventually brought back northward in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean basin.
“On the northern tip of Australia, the water flows westward again which is how you close the gyre,” said van Sebille. “Like a big vortex, it’s an ellipse where the velocities on one side are much faster than the other.”
Given all this ocean circulation, is there any way to know where the 777 debris will be by year’s end?
In the next ten months, van Sebille says, such debris could make its way to the northern Indian Ocean islands of Diego Garcia or La Reunion; or even an East African beach in Tanzania.
In ten years, he says, some of it might even make it to the south Atlantic Ocean between Africa and Brazil.
But by then, would it still even be recognizable as aircraft debris?
“We really don’t even know how plastic disintegrates in seawater, much less pieces of an airplane,” said van Sebille.
By the time the MH370’s debris nears the African coast however, van Sebille says it would be far too dissipated to accurately backtrack to within hundreds of miles of its origins.
“And if you found it on the beach,” said van Sebille, “you’d also have the problem of knowing how long it’s already been [lying] there.”