MH370 Debris Was Planted, Ineptly

Tiny colony

From the paper “Rapid, Long-Distance Dispersal by Pumice Rafting,” by Bryan et al.

In the weeks since MH370 debris began washing up in the Western Indian Ocean, I’ve struggled to understand the condition in which they were found. Particularly baffling were the three that washed ashore in Mozambique and South Africa, which were almost completely clean and free of marine fouling. I’ve talked to a number of marine biologists who study organisms that grow on floating debris, and they told me that given their pristine appearance these pieces couldn’t have floated for more than a few weeks.

Some observers have suggested that perhaps the objects had failed to pick up significant fouling because they drifted through waters that were too cold or low in nutrients, but further examination showed that this could not be the explanation.

One commenter on this blog suggested that the pieces were too shallow, or too small, to permit the growth of Lepas barnacles. This, too, is an unsuitable explanation, since Lepas can grow on bits of floating debris that are as small as a few centimeters across. The photograph above shows a small but vibrant community growing on a piece of pumice spewed from a volcano in Tonga; the largest Lepas (goose barnacle) in the image is 23 mm long.

In acknowledging the very obvious problem that this lack of biofouling presents, David Griffin of the Australian government’s science agency, CSIRO, has written (referring to the first Mozambique piece) that “this item is not heavily encrusted with sea life, so it has probably spent a significant length of time either weathering in the sun and/or washing back and forth in the sand at this or some other location. The time at sea is therefore possibly much less than the 716 days that have elapsed since 14 March 2014, and the path taken may have been two or more distinct segments.”

The idea then, is that these pieces washed across the Indian Ocean, were deposited on a beach, were picked over my crabs and other predators, bleached in the sun and scoured by wind and sand, the were washed back out to sea, then came ashore again within less than two weeks and were discovered.

One problem with this scenario is that while we might just about imagine a sequence of events happening to one piece, it seems incredible to imagine it happening to three pieces independently, in different locations and at different times. (To be fair to Dr Griffin, he proposed this idea at a time when only once piece had yet been found.)

Another problem with Dr Griffin’s idea is that no major storms took place in the two weeks preceding the discovery of each of the pieces in Mozambique and South Africa. Indeed, the region has been experiencing a drought.

In short, there is not plausible sequence of events by which the three pieces found in Africa could have arrived there by natural means.

What about the piece which turned up on Rodrigues Island? As I wrote in my blog post, the size of the barnacles blatantly contradict the possibility that the object was afloat for two years. And given that Rodrigues is surrounded by a reef, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, the idea that it might have washed ashore somewhere, gotten re-floated, and then came ashore again to be discovered is close to inconceivable.

Taken separately, these objects defy explanation. Taken together, however, they present a unified picture. Though discovered weeks and months apart, in locations separated by thousands of miles, they are all of a piece: they are all wrong. They do not look–at all!–like they should.

There is only one reasonable conclusion to draw from the condition of these pieces. Since natural means could not have delivered them to the locations where they were discovered, they must have been put there deliberately. They were planted.

In fact, we can go even further than that. Whoever put these pieces on the shores where they were discovered wasn’t even trying very hard. It would only have taken a little bit of imagination and a small amount of effort to put these pieces in the ocean for a few months to pick up a healthy suite of full-sized Lepas. This clearly was attempted in the case of the Rodrigues piece, but no effort at all was expended on the African pieces.

Why? Were they being lazy, or simply overconfident? Or did they know that it wouldn’t matter?

Perhaps the events of last July influenced their decision. After the flaperon was discovered on Réunion Island, it was whisked away by French authorities, given a cursory examination, and then hidden away. The public were never told what the investigators found, or didn’t find. No one seriously questioned whether the flaperon could really have come from a crash in the Southern Indian Ocean. (Well, almost no one.)

Six months later, the failure of the seabed search was looming. The Australian government had already begun saying that it might not find the plane, and preparing the public for the decision to call off the search. The narrative that the plane had nonetheless flown south to some unknown point in the southern Indian Ocean needed bolstering. Given how little inquiry had been directed at the Réunion piece, whoever planted the most recent four pieces might reasonably have assumed that the public would accept the new pieces uncritically, no matter how lackadaisical their preparation.

Maybe they were right. Past experience has shown that people have a remarkable ability to squint their eyes and avoid seeing the obvious ramifications of evidence plunked down in front of them. A good example was the seabed search that took place after acoustic pings were detected back in the spring of 2014. The frequency of pings was wrong, and the physical distribution of the pings indicated that they could not possibly have come from stationary wreckage. So it was clear from the data that the pings were not coming from black boxes. But numerous experts twisted themselves into knots explaining how the deep-sea hydroaccoustic environment was very weird, with salinity gradients and underwater valleys that channeled sound, and so on. I was on a panel on CNN one day when famed science communicator Bill Nye explained that the sound waves probably were refracted by passing through water masses of varying densities, and refraction causes frequencies to change. When you have to start changing the laws of physics to justify your interpretation of the data, it might be time to start looking for a new interpretation.

I’m not saying that people’s attempts thus far to explain the condition of the MH370 debris through non-nefarious means is misguided. Far from it–as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and when presented with evidence like the MH370 debris which invites such an uncomfortable (some will no doubt say outlandish) conclusion, it’s necessary to carefully rule out simpler explanations. However, once that has been done, we must not avert our eyes and say, “Well, I just can’t accept that conclusion, it’s not reasonable, there must be some explanation you’re missing,” or come up with a Nyeism that posits as explanation some phenomenon previously unknown to science.

If the MH370 investigation has taught us anything, is that restricting the discussion to “acceptable” explanations is a fatal trap. Early in the mystery, Duncan Steel hosted a discussion on his web site for people to exchange views and information. He had a rule, however: it was forbidden to discuss any scenarios which posited that the plane had been diverted intentionally, as he felt that this was disrespectful to the people on board. Of course, we now know that the plane was certainly diverted by someone on board, so effectively what Steel was outlawing was the discussion of any scenario that might possible be correct.

This mindset is alive and well. Recently on a discussion forum, one of the participants flatly stated that she was not interested in hearing about any theories that involve a hijacking. The ATSB has shown itself to be equally narrowminded. It has on multiple occasions declared that its interpretation of the Inmarsat data is unassailable. First it said that there was 100 percent chance that the plane was in the first 60,000 square km search area. When it turned out not to be, they drew a 120,000 sq km search area and declared that there was a 100 percent chance it was inside there. Come June, they will find (as we know now because of the condition of the African debris) that it is not there, either. Yet their recurring failure has not shaken their faith in their “reasonable” belief about what happened to the plane.

So maybe whoever planted the debris in Mozambique, South Africa, and Rodrigues weren’t lazy–maybe their understanding of human psychology simply allowed them to take the minimum steps necessary. Whether their calculation was accurate or not will now become apparent.