The Flaperon’s Path to Réunion

drifter-screengrabAs As I wrote back in September, Patrick De Deckker is an Australian scientist to whom the French authorities entrusted a 2.5-cm-long Lepas anatifera shell.  De Deckker has analyzed the shell to determine the ratio of magnesium to calcium within it. Because this depends on the temperature of the water in which the barnacle is growing, and the shell is laid down sequentially like the rings of a tree as it gets bigger, the barnacle can essentially serve as a record of the water temperature of the ocean it floated through. This raises the question: can this analysis tell us something about the route the flaperon traveled?

In August, De Deckker told an Australian journalist: “The start of the growth was around 24 degrees (Celsius) and then for quite some time, it ranged between 20 and 18 degrees (Celsius). And then it went up again to around 25 degrees.”

To me this suggested an obvious route of inquiry: all we had to do was sift through the Global Drifter Program for drifters that wound up in the vicinity of Réunion during the months of July or August of any given year (the flaperon washed up at the end of July, 2015) and see which of them experienced that kind of temperature profile.

I asked for volunteers to help sift through NASA or NOAA databases available online, but no one came forward. Fortunately, my brother-in-law John Swart, a database whiz, came to my rescue. He gave me a copy of Filemaker and showed me how to import data from NOAA’s Global Drifter Program.

Every day, four times a day, these drifters transmit their position and temperature via satellite to the nerds at NOAA. Using this location information we can plot how each one arrived in the vicinity of Réunion. In the Google Earth screengrab above you can see the path that each of 16 drifters took from the start of the calendar year to July/August (the data spans from 2000 to 2015). The upshot: many of the drifters started out fairly close to Réunion, and sort of swirled around. Some came from fairly far away, however–some from the northeast, others from the east or southeast (the direction of the 7th arc).

You can view the drifters’ movement by dropping this .kmz file into Google Earth.

So how did all these paths relate to temperature? With Mr Swart’s help I tabulated all the temperature data for the 16 drifters I examined. Here are the results for 12, as much as will fit in a Filemaker chart (click to expand):


Not that, as time passes, the range of temperatures shrinks, as the drifters converge on the waters near Réunion. (If you have FileMaker you can look at the underlying data set here. CSV here. Excel here.)

I should point out that according to the world’s leading Lepas Anatifera expert, Cynthia Venn of Bloomsburg University, barnacles this size are probably only a couple months old, perhaps as much as four months if we want to be really conservative. So we should look for a U-shaped temperature pattern somewhere between day 90 and day 210.

The closest we see to this pattern would, I suppose, be drifter 71030 or 41337. But neither of these experienced water temperature lower than 21 degrees. (Of the four drifters that didn’t fit on the graph,  the coldest temperature experienced was 23 degrees.)

To my mind, this suggests that the flaperon may not have arrived at Réunion through a natural process of drift.

To be sure, there are other possible explanations for this apparent anomaly. We don’t really know, or instance, how accurate Dr De Deckker’s paleothermometry really is. And it may be that by statistical fluke the flaperon happened to wander off into cold water and back again.

But these findings emerge in the context of other hard-to-explain aspects of the recovered aircraft debris:

— As confirmed by French investigators, the flaperon somehow acquired a population of Lepas barnacles even though its natural tendency was to float high in the water

— The majority of the debris has been collected in a statistically unlikely way

— The majority of collected debris is uncharacteristically devoid of marine life

— On the pieces that do have marine life, it appears to be too small given the amount of time spent at sea.

Taken together, these incongruities raise significant doubts about the provenance of the MH370 debris recovered to date.

While the Australian authorities have bent over backwards to explain their analysis of the Inmarsat data and how it lead them to define the seabed search area, they have been completely silent on the topic of biofouling (except to say that it exists). I wonder if it is because, like the French investigators who were unable to reconcile how high the flaperon floated in the water, they are stumped by inconsistencies in their data.

Australian officials have stated that they will release a comprehensive report on their findings after the seabed search is finished. Given that the last ship, the Fugro Equator, has now started its final stretch at sea, and the last mission lasted about six weeks, the search will likely be wrapped up by the end of January. Hopefully we will have some answers soon after that.

133 thoughts on “The Flaperon’s Path to Réunion”

  1. @DennisW:
    I saw your comment only now. Been dressing the Christmas tree. Yes I agree De Deckker’s (own) formulations need to be weighed and taken for what they are. I was in a mood, a bit saddened by how things are. I don’t know if ATSB didn’t let oceonagrapers and marine life specialists on their Arc, but I got the general impression they are underachieveing. Let’s put our hopes to that the journalist and the scholar can shake down some attention. And that our sour faces can make them all get at the tasks. But perhaps they need more time deliberating.

    A Merry Christmas / God Jul to you and Ami.

  2. @TBill

    Sorry, as I said before I don’t have my day.. messing up things..
    It’s indeed Richard Godfrey who did the writing about Mike Chillit.

  3. @all
    Re: UAE Flight 425 Perth to Dubai 8-March-2014
    I don’t know if anyone has talked about UAE425 which would have passed over the 7th arc about the same time as MH370.

    Assuming I have not made a mistake with FS2004 flight times, here are some key time estimates:

    UAE425 8-Mar-14
    Take Off 22:00 UTC (5:57AM Perth- via
    Crosses 26.9S (Ianello/Godfrey lat) 23:17 UTC
    Crosses 23.5S (Godfrey pin/7th arc) 23:58

    So if MH370 was on the Ianello/Godfrey McMurdo path ending at 26.9S, the UAE425 pilots could have a had a good view of MH370 passing in the Sun just to the west. On the other hand, if MH370 was coming down the Godfrey “airport-search” path ending at 23.5S, the UAE pilots could possibly have seen MH370 to the north.

    If MH370 was actually coming right down the L894 vector to Perth, as myself and others have previously theorized, then MH370 and UAE425 would have passed over each other shortly before 23:58.

    Somebody probably looked at this, because the first MH370 route theory back in March/April 2014 was that MH370 was on the flight path to Perth. There is a Reddit thread on this Perth route idea, but I don’t see reference to UAE425.

    It goes without saying my prelim time estimates (above) could be off.

  4. @TBill

    It’s not my day but I have a shot anyway.. These are the dark days before Christmas you know..
    There are no reports about any plane flying from Perth to the West or any other direction or plane that saw another plane around that time flying South.

    A few years ago I flew from KLIA straight to Perth. Australia was approuched to its most North-Western edge (Exmouth area) and since then we flew along with the coastline visible until Perth.
    So nowhere near a flight path MH370 could have taken I assume.

  5. @TBill – good catch on UAE425 as well I had thought the path into the SIO was made not by MH370 but borrowed from this flight and other flights that no longer exist such as a Singapore to Perth. In addition the flyback data could have been generated from that flight from Beijing to Penang. From there it was a patch work of KUL to Dubai and when UAE 425 intersect its the so called “FMT”

  6. @TBill

    To add. On the return flight out of Perth to Bangkok it was about the same.
    Flying a long time with the coastline of Western Australia visible almost to its end.

  7. @Jeff I agree that whilst a larger barnacle could provide additional information into the travel of the flaperon, the information gained from the smaller barnacle is very useful. I agree also that the expectation would be that the time period covered by both the large and small barnacle would be reflected similarly in analysis of both barnacles although it may be hard to access the early record due to compression of the ring. I think you have put together a very valuable and novel piece of analysis here. Thank you.

  8. @Ge Rijn and David,

    If you are a barnacle in the business of attaching to floating things, it would seem that evolution would dictate a neutral bouyancy unless there was a very good reason otherwise. Heavy barnacles would sink their host and limit their reproduction. Overly buoyant barnacles that form colonies would cause each other problems with sunlight and dehydration. Both heavy and light variants would limit colony sizes, whereas neutral ones would allow infinite colony sizes.

    I could be wrong, but over billions of cycles of these guys attaching to things that float, they’ve perfected neutral buoyancy, probably even taking temperature and drift into account, or the whole deal just wouldn’t work.

    I’d even speculate that the same is true of most mobile sea creatures, though I have no data.

  9. @all
    Re: Other Air Traffic near MH370
    Old article below (similar to Jeff’s theory), but it points out that an inexpensive ADS-B antenna can be bought by anyone (saw ad yesterday) and hooked up to an iPad to get air traffic. So if someone on MH370 had that in the cockpit, that would allow avoiding other aircraft…and, as long as MH370 had the transponder off, the other aircraft would not know MH370 was there.

    The MH370 aircraft TCAS collision system also does this function, if that was operating on MH370…not sure. So presumably it could be possible to take evasive action to hide from other aircraft…I wondering about that.

  10. @T-Bill
    “The MH370 aircraft TCAS collision system also does this function, if that was operating on MH370…not sure. So presumably it could be possible to take evasive action to hide from other aircraft…I wondering about that.”

    TCAS works only with an active transponder. A short search would have brought up this link. Sorry to say, but it is another exemple of thinking out loud without checking.

  11. @JS:
    I am not, but I would expect that a primary goal would dictate the life and times of barnacles, and it may be that this goal, which I assume is reproduction (of the individual/ /cloud of seeds / family/ community/species), is managable with our without discussed bouyancy. You need to know how Mr. Barnacle identifies a (wothwhile) entity of his own kind. If all vasps die, but the queen survives there is not extinction but rejuvention, or what insecticists would call it.

  12. @RetiredF4
    Thank you for the link. Are you saying the article I linked to was inaccurate for saying MH370 could still use the TCAS to see incoming aircraft if the transponder is off? Could be inaccurate article.

  13. JS: Just a note that Lepas certainly have a lower density than the common, non-stalked intertidal barnacles, but their substantial calcareous shell definitely makes them sinkers.

    In evolutionary time, flotsam was likely to be driftwood [with buoyancy that would last as long as the barnacles, not plastics, glass floats and aircraft composites, so I doubt they were selected for neutral buoyancy!

  14. I Googled the phrase “mh370 flight path” and viewed the images…wow…

    A page full of mostly useless maps…the first several don’t even show the last southern turn, the next several show old calculated routes which don’t even intersect the current search area.

    About halfway down, I found one that more or less depicts the current state of the search…and I could only pick it out because I knew what I was looking for.

    Anyone trying to research this from scratch would be thoroughly confused. Thanks Google.

  15. Ikr – any idea on the exact buoyancy? And do they have any ability to adjust it? It still seems problematic to me that if too many grow on one object, they could sink it.

    Good point about the flotsam outliving Mr. Barnacle.

  16. @JS

    I think your point may be well taken. It would seem that stalked barnacles can control buoyancy by the amount air trapped in the attachment cement. While I have absolutely no interest in biology outside my own species, I offer the link below.

    I am amused by the plagiarism melodrama, and I am reminded, for some twisted reason, of the time two daughters of a friend of mine were traveling by train through Italy. One of the daughters was fondled by a male passenger. The daughter who was not fondled was extremely annoyed because she was convinced she was the more desirable of the two.

    So it goes with plagiarism. We contributors who have not been plagiarized are left to ponder our neglect. Is it that our contributions are not deemed worthy?

  17. @DennisW said:

    ‘It would seem that stalked barnacles can control buoyancy by the amount air trapped in the attachment cement.’

    Maybe you didn’t read the first line of the abstract on the page you linked (caps added):

    ‘Dosima fascicularis IS THE ONLY barnacle which can drift autonomously at the water surface with a foam-like cement float.’

    Kind of rules out lepas anatifera then? 🙂

  18. @Middleton

    The title did not escape me. Granted the Dosima fascicularis IS THE ONLY barnacle the can drift autonomously. Autonomously means without attachment to host debris at all. Other species of barnacles, while unable to drift autonomously, can adjust their buoyancy (as can several other species mentioned in the article).

  19. @TBill
    Thank you for the link. Are you saying the article I linked to was inaccurate for saying MH370 could still use the TCAS to see incoming aircraft if the transponder is off? Could be inaccurate article.”

    Neither one. i did comment on the cited “if that was operating” sentence from you. Transponder was off, therefore no TCAS. What is unclear?

    The question to the usefulness of a transportable ADSB receiver in the cabin / cockpit on the discussed routing answers AOPA .

    The chance to hit some other aircraft or come within one mile of one on that routing or to be overseen and reported by some other pilot is imho negligable. I would just press on.

  20. @DennisW – I came to the same conclusion. The amount and composition of the cement affected bouyancy. It was unrelated to whether the barnacles actively used that buoyancy to create their own raft.

    The reason I am curious is I find the whole “colonized and sank the flaperon” theory to be hard to believe. Species that sink themselves out of existence don’t last long, unless they do it for some specific reason like to thin the herd if the colony gets to heavy.

    For short-lived primitive animals like barnacles, evolution has had a lot of time to make adjustments. The exact bouyancy, even if not exactly neutral, is probably determined by extensive selection.

  21. @DennisW:
    Yes, sexual abuse and plagiarism has a lot in common. Makes one realise that one should not publish anything in dark and crowded alleys, late at night and in the wrong part of town and with less than proper clothes on.

  22. @Johan

    Yes. I would add not publishing while drinking to your list. Almost all the things I regret in life happened while under the influence of alcohol molecules. Not an excuse. Just an observation.

  23. @DennisW:
    That is “affliction awareness”. That is a sign of a base to build on. Not that I doubted that.

  24. Summary of latest ATSB “First Principles” report:

    “The plane isn’t where we’ve looked already, therefore it must be where we haven’t look yet.”

    Splendid analysis.

  25. What one sea-turtle could do in ~20 minutes to a barnacle colonized piece of floating debris:

    A graphic example of what could have happened to pieces of debris underway regarding barnacle colonization too.
    Showing it’s well possible the found barnacles on debris were not the first that colonized it.

  26. @Ge Rijn, Fantastic find. Yes: contrary to what I’ve written in the past, we cannot take the age of the oldest barnacle to be equal to the total time of immersion of a piece of debris. Young barnacles does not mean planting.

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