The essence of the mystery of MH370 is this: was the missing Malaysian airliner hijacked by a suicidal pilot and flown into the remote southern Indian Ocean, or did it fall victim to sophisticated hijackers who spoofed its satcom satellite signal to fool investigators into looking in the wrong place?
To resolve the issue we have two sets of clues. The first is the aforementioned satellite signal data, better known as the Inmarsat BFO and BTO data. The second is the collection of 20-odd pieces of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean from July, 2015 onwards.
Using advanced mathematical methods, its possible to derive a probability distribution from the Inmarsat data showing where the plane might have wound up, assuming the data had not been spoofed. Under the leadership of the Australia Transport Safety Board (ATSB) more than $150 million has been spent searching this area, and the plane was not there. This suggests that the data was spoofed. A further area where some mathematics suggest the plane might possibly have wound up is currently being searched. If the plane is not there, either, then this will lend further weight to the conclusion that the data was spoofed.
Examination of the debris provides an avenue to independently check this conclusion.
Debris which floats across oceans collects a wide variety of marine organisms as it travels, allowing scientists to understand how long it has been in the water and where it has traveled from, as I’ve written about previously. Aircraft wreckage which entered the water in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean as a result of a crash on March 8, 2014 should for the most part be richly covered in a variety of organisms. However, this was not observed; most of the pieces had little or no visible biofouling.
A notable exception was the flaperon which washed ashore on Réunion Island in July, 2015, which had a rich covering of marine biofouling. However, the age of the barnacles did not match the length of time the piece was supposed to have been in the water. According to the final report issued by the ATSB, “The Operational Search for MH370,” on October 3, 2017: “the specimens analysed here were quite young, perhaps less than one month.”
Another anomaly regarding the biofouling of the flaperon was the fact that during flotation tests, the flaperon was found to float about half out of the water. This is difficult to reconcile with the settlement pattern of Lepas, which cover every part of the item. Since Lepas only attach and thrive under water, this suggests that the flaperon did not float freely during its time in the water.
A third anomaly was the finding, based on the chemical composition of the shell, that the Lepas growing on the flaperon spent much of their lives in water that was between 18 and 20 degrees. It would not have been possible for the flaperon to float from such distant, cold water to its time and place of discovery by natural means.
Australia’s final report also included analysis of the biofouling of debris. Scientists at Geoscience Australia scrutinized four pieces: the flap fairing found by Liam Lötter in Mozambique (designated Item 2), the fragment of horizontal stabilizer with the words “No Step” found by Blaine Alan Gibson in Mozambique (Item 3), the piece of engine cowling found in Mossel Bay, South Africa (Item 4), and a section of an interior wall found on Rodrigues Island (Item 5).
Given the ATSB’s confidence that the plane had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean at the start of the southern autumn near 36 degrees south, the researchers should have found marine life endemic to the temperate zone. But the scientists found no such thing. Instead, every single specimen they were able to identify was native to the tropical zone of the Indian Ocean.
Like the flaperon, Item 5 came ashore with a healthy population of Lepas barnacles. And like those on the flaperon, these were found to be less than two months old.
Particular puzzling was the assemblage of organisms found on No Step. Two-thirds of the species found on it live only close to shore and could not have been picked up in the open sea. “The natural habitat of the recovered molluscs is shallow water, on clean coral sand or in seagrass meadows,” the investigators reported. “None of them could or would ever attach to drifting debris.” The only way the investigators could make sense of this was to assume that it had picked up the shells of these creatures from the sand when it had come ashore.
The one-third of the molluscs found on No Step that plausibly could have attached in the open water were all “juveniles at approximately two months old.”
Only two specimens, a sea snail of the species Petaloconchus renisectus and a tube worm of the serpulid family, looked to be more than two months old. The former appeared to be six to eight months old; the latter, eight to twelve months old. Strangely, both types of animal are usually found living on the seabed rather than floating debris.
I reached out to marine biologist Scott Bryan, who has studied out pieces of volcanic pumice called clasts become progressively settled by marine organisms after they get blasted out of volcanoes and land in the sea. Some of the clasts he studied had floated from Tonga to Australia and had serpulids living on them. “The serpulids got recruited when the pumice got close to the coast or islands,” he explained via email. “We had a significant number of serpulids on pumice we collected around the Vava’u islands in Tonga, so not very far away from Home Reef (100 km or so). So the interpretation is the serpulids were locally recruited around the islands… serpulids love hard surfaces and often are found on rocky coasts in the tidal zone. So the pumice needed to encounter rocky islands more than sandy islands or potentially reefs.”
Part of Réunion’s shore is rocky. It’s possible to imagine that “No Step” traveled westward from an impact zone in the eastern Indian Ocean, fetched up near Réunion, picked up the serpulid and the Petaloconchus, then drifting the rest of the way.
But this still leaves question marks about the absence of temperate biofouling and the lack of organisms of the correct age.