[Note: the following is a translation from an article published by Spiegel Online on Friday. Thanks to @littlefoot (Sabine Lechtenfeld) for her assistance.]
by Christoph Seidler
What happened to the missing Boeing 777 of flight MH370? The aircraft with 239 people on board has been missing since March 8, 2014. As the end of July, a piece of wreckage washed up on the French island of La vunion, giving investigators that the wing flap might help solve the riddle–among other things, because it could show how the piece of debris made its way across the Indian Ocean. And that, in turn, should provide a clue to at least the general area that the plane went down.
Now computer calculations by German oceanographer suggest that perhaps the search for the Malaysia Airlines aircraft has been carried out in the wrong area. Until now, says Andreas Villwock of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, it’s been assumed that MH370 had crashed far south of the equator at 35 degrees latitude. Computer models by his colleagues show, however, that the debris “probably comes from the eastern equatorial Indian Ocean,” far from the nothern end of the current search area.
Over the course of several weeks, the Kiel researchers Arne Biastoch and Jonathan Durgadoo used a computer model to reverse the track of the debris across the Indian Ocean. Their model used daily current data that had been obtained in past months by French colleagues. The key question: Which path did the piece of debris take across the Indian Ocean, which scientist liken to the inside a pinball machine because of its chaotic eddies and turbulence?
Researchers understood from the start that a computer simulation can’t calculate a precise location of the crash site, but at best only point to a broad area. This coming Tuesday, they will present their results in detail at a press conference in Kiel. However, this much is already clear: The reseachers’ results are contrary to the Australian search strategy.
The current seabed search is focused on an area of ocean west of the Australian coast, and not in the equatorial region, which the simulations now seem to point to.
A total of 120,000 square kilometers will be scanned, an area as big as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Hessen put together. Two ships of the geotechnical company Fugro are carrying out the task on behalf of the governments of Australia, Malaysia and China. So far, they have examined around 55,000 square kilometers with sonar, without tangible result. The simulation seems to suggest that large parts of the southern region were scoured in vain.
Meanwhile, the wing flap that washed ashore has been examined in a laboratory in Toulouse, France. According to Malaysian reports, the wreckage definitely belongs to MH370. French investigators speak of a “very strong suggestion.” details the wreckage belongs definitely MH370. French investigators spoke of a “very strong presumption”. Tha’s why Australia expresses confidence that the wreck will be found.
Two German scientists believe that so-called goose barnacles could provide clues to the crash location. These colonized the piece of debris as it drifted across the Indian Ocean. Geologist Hans-Georg Herbig and the biologist Philip Schiffer, both from Cologne, have identified the small crustaceans in photos.
Both are experts in the small animals, which are part of the barnacle family. Herbig and Schiffer have compiled the first genetic fingerprints for five barnacle species from different parts of the world’s oceans. They have also found that each subspecies dwells in specific climatic zones dependent on the latitude.
But because the French authorities have provided them no sample material of organisms from the wreckage, they can’t apply their insights to help narrow the search for the crash site. “I’m pretty frustrated because despite making requests through various channels, no one has replied,” Hans-Georg Herbig told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “We have tried many things, but got no response.”
In summary: Researchers from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel will officially present their findings next Tuesday–however they have already give a first clue: Computer analysis suggests that a a piece of debris from flight MH370 that washed up on La Réunion orginated from the “eastern equatorial Indian Ocean.” This is far from the area where two ships are currently searching for the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines aircraft.