On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, prompting the most expensive search in the history of aviation. A few pieces of debris washed ashore, but the main body of the airplane – along with the passengers and crew – remain missing.
A new study, however, has suggested a way we might be able to find the aircraft nearly a decade later. And the answer is: barnacles.
A year after the crash, University of South Florida geoscientist Gregory Herbert saw photos of debris that washed ashore on Réunion Island off the coast of Africa. On the debris, he saw barnacles.
“The debris was covered in barnacles, and as soon as I saw that, I immediately began sending emails to the search investigators because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash location,” Herbert said in a statement.
The flaperon, part of the wing, was confirmed to have a number of the barnacle Lepas anatifera attached to it. The reason this was so exciting to Herbert is that barnacle shells grow daily, with each layer put down being affected by the temperature of the water it finds itself in.
The result is something like how the rings in trees can tell you how old a tree is and what the weather conditions were like, or how looking at ancient corals can tell us Earth had 420 days a year 444-419 million years ago. By looking at this record of the water temperature contained with the barnacles and comparing it with oceanographic modeling, it might be possible to track the path of the barnacles – and the flaperon it was attached to – back to where the wreckage took place.
The crash is believed to have happened in a north-south corridor called "The Seventh Arc" where temperatures change rapidly, making it easier to track the path.
Herbert got to have a dry run at this, testing the method on some of the younger barnacles from the wreckage, having first refined the process of extracting more exact temperature data from barnacles grown in the lab.
"Flaperon colonization (drift origin) occurred in warmer waters around 27°C [80°F] followed by a shift to continuously cooler waters around 23-24°C [73-75°F] for a significant part of the latter drift," the team wrote in their study. "This is consistent with [an earlier] drift modeling experiment [...] which showed that the MH370 flaperon should have had a leftward (southward) trajectory into cooler waters as it drifted across the Indian Ocean."
The team conducted a particle-tracking simulation, in which 50,000 "particles" were released in the Indian Ocean east of Réunion Island from potential drift points, to identify possible areas of interest. From this, they chose their top five best drift fits for further investigation
"Each of these drifters spent their last five months drifting west of longitude 70°E, south of 20°S, and within 1,500 km [932 miles] of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean," the team wrote. "Only one drifter [...] eventually reached waters around Réunion Island (within 220 km [137 miles]) by the end of the simulation."
The study shows that reconstructing the path of the debris could be possible, significantly narrowing down where to look. However, for that the team writes that they need to refine their methods, and gain access to older barnacles.
“French scientist Joseph Poupin, who was one of the first biologists to examine the debris, concluded that the largest barnacles attached were possibly old enough to have colonized on the wreckage very shortly after the crash and very close to the actual crash location where the plane is now,” Herbert said.
“Sadly, they have not yet been made available for research, but with this study, we’ve proven this method can be applied to a barnacle that colonized on the debris shortly after the crash to reconstruct a complete drift path back to the crash origin.”
The team hopes that the new approach could help resume the search for the plane, and maybe even bring closure to the families of those on board.
The study is published in AGU Advances.