On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 lost contact with radar stations after taking off from Kuala Lumpur and was never seen again. A massive international search combed the ocean for clues but the plane had simply vanished.
The first sign of the fate of the plane was a flaperon that washed up on the French island of La Reunion in the western Indian Ocean in 2015. This spurred a group of scientists at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre of Ocean Research Kiel to simulate the objects possible drift in the hope of narrowing down the area of the possible crash site.
Crash site impossible to pinpoint
That research was refined by a European consortium that added the effect of surface waves. This combined information informed the most likely crash-site region of the MH370: an area west of Australia, north of the then search area.
The initial search area was determined in part by the planes interaction with space satellites. MH370 made contact with an Inmarsat satellite and its related ground station six times before finally ending communication 08:19:29 a.m. Analyzing these connections helped search crews determine where to begin.
Research group continues after search ends
The official search for MH370 is now over but the research into the ocean drift of marine debris under the umbrella of GEOMAR in co-operation with the UK's National Oceanography Centre (NOC), the Mercator Océan group in Toulouse and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading continued.
The group's research aimed to establish quasi-real-time applications of the drift of objects or organisms in the ocean. The group wanted to test the importance of considering surface waves in the calculations, as well as the effectiveness of using advanced simulation techniques and statistics.
Multiple factors at play
They also tested the hypothesis around whether or not the use of more pieces of debris would refine their results. The research team has asserted that one essential factor for understanding ocean drift is the inclusion of Stokes drift. This phenomenon describes the net movement of floating objects caused by the passing of surface waves.
In a study published last week in Journal of Operational Oceanography, the research suggests that Stokes drift is much more important for drift analysis than previously credited.
"Ignoring Stokes drift in the simulations can lead to major errors, as we have demonstrated with the MH370 example. For any application where surface drift is studied, Stokes drift should be included to provide more precise tracking results", explains Dr. Jonathan Durgadoo of GEOMAR, lead investigator of the study.
More information needed
The researcher's note that the lack of being able to pinpoint a crash zone is due to several factors including a lack of knowledge about the buoyancy characteristics of debris. They also acknowledge the influence the uncertainty in estimating the time difference between the washing up of debris on land and their recovery.
"Unfortunately, no further information is available to us. Our current estimates suggest that, with at least five items of debris, an optimal area for the most probable crash-site region can be achieved", emphasizes Prof. Dr. Arne Biastoch, head of the research team at GEOMAR. Despite being unable to pinpoint the crash site the researchers are satisfied that their work will have a positive Influence in further marine studies.
Their research has application for both the study of human-made debris like floating plastic as well as marine life such as surface algae or other organisms.