In an earlier post I described research conducted at the GEOMAR-Helmholtz Institute for Ocean Research in Kiel which suggested that, based on reverse-drift analysis of the Rénion flaperon, its starting point most likely lay in the tropical latitudes of the southern Indian Ocean, far north of the current seabed search area.
Today the same scientists published an update of their research, with a press release available here and the full report here. The upshot can be seen in the chart above, which shows the probability distribution of where the piece likely began its journey to Réunion island. Once again the authors have concluded that the greater part of the probability (98.7 %) lies far north of the seabed search area, shown as a white rectangle. The study’s authors suggest that their results might justify a shift of the search area:
The Australian search authorities are aware of this report. “Whether or not these new results will be used to facilitate the last few months of the ongoing search for MH370 is not clear,” Arne Biastoch summarizes.
One of the refinements included in the new study is that while the authors continued to assume that there was no direct wind effect on the flaperon (it being presumed to be floating essentially flush with the surface), they have included for the first time an effect called Stokes Drift, which results from wind-generated waves:
“In our recent calculations we included more physical processes in order to simulate the drift more realistically,” Prof. Biastoch explains. “In particular the drift induced by wind generated ocean waves is now included,” Biastoch continues. “Even though we use state-of-the-art modelling systems, representing the ocean currents in the Indian Ocean quite well, all simulations naturally contain limitations. Our investigation is one important piece of the puzzle in finding MH370.”
As a result of the new calculations the possible source region of the flaperon was refined, and “While it is shifted a bit southward from the initial study done last September, our basic result that most particles originate from a region north of the current search area remains unchanged,” states Dr. Durgadoo.
So should Australian search officials call a halt to the current search and relocate its ships further north? Actually, I don’t think they should. If the GEOMAR scientists are correct and MH370 did crash into the ocean west of Exmouth, the plane must have been following a low and curving trajectory of the kind that is not supported by any simple autopilot mode. That is to say, the plane would have been either conscious control the entire time or flying along a series of arbitrary user-defined waypoints.
The latter seems extraordinarily unlikely. First, we would have to surmise that whoever was in control of the plane decided to fly a basically random path, and to choose a cumbersome way of doing so, entering by hand pairs of latitude-longitude coordinates. This would be bizarre behavior, to say the least. Furthermore, as explained in the DSTG report issued last December, it is extremely unlikely that a randomly chosen set of slow segments would happen to match the ping rings. Instead, random sequences are only likely to match if they conform to a fast-and-straight flight to the south: in other words, if they end up in the current search area.
The former is problematic for the same reasons, and for an additional one as well. If the plane was under conscious control until the bitter end, then we cannot assume that, as in the unpiloted scenario, it spiraled into the sea once its fuel ran out. Instead, the conscious pilot might have chose to hold it into a glide far beyond the seventh arc. We have no reasonable expectation, therefore, that a narrow search along the seventh arc would yield the wreckage.