Tracing back debris to find Flight 370 may prove impossible

Published 10:10 am Friday, July 31, 2015

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — If it’s confirmed that a wing fragment found on a remote island in the Indian Ocean is from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, lost more than 500 days ago, could scientists use their knowledge of ocean currents to trace back its path and pinpoint the bulk of the wreck?

Australian oceanographer David Griffin says that would be akin to using modeling of big-city crowd flows to try to predict the travels of a random person encountered on the street. In short, next to impossible.

While Griffin and other oceanographers say the discovery on the island of Reunion fits in with their large-scale modeling of how debris drifts across the Indian Ocean, there remain a mind-boggling number of variables in the journey of any single piece of flotsam.

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For instance, although Reunion is 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) from the current search site off the Australian coast, the wing fragment is likely to have zigzagged significantly farther than that.

Oceanographers say currents in the Indian Ocean generally flow counterclockwise, meaning that if the plane crashed near where authorities suspect, the fragment may first have drifted north toward the Indonesian island of Sumatra before turning west, traveling past India and finally heading south toward Reunion.

Even within that journey, there is likely to have been plenty of meandering. That’s because of the numerous squalls and storms in the Indian Ocean, many of which aren’t well recorded, not to mention tidal changes and the seemingly random channels of water that move counter to the general flow.

Griffin says even variables like how much the debris protrudes above the water will affect how much wind it catches, and its shape will influence how well it surfs down wave faces.

“The job we are trying to do now is to reverse the modeling and backtrack it,” said Griffin, who works for Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. “But really, the source could be anywhere in the east Indian Ocean.”