Mapping the Indian Ocean

Hunt for missing MH370 aircraft uncovers secrets of Indian Ocean

Image credit: Reuters

The extensive international effort to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has proved unsuccessful in finding the aeroplane and its lost passengers, although the data uncovered in the search could prove useful to fishermen, oceanographers and other researchers.

The aircraft, a Boeing 777 operated by Malaysia Airlines, disappeared in March 2014 on a passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. Many investigators believe that the aircraft’s transponder was deliberately switched off, causing the aircraft to become lost thousands of miles over the Indian Ocean, until it ran out of fuel.

Analysis of the aircraft’s final satellite communications suggest that it completed its final journey within the Southern Indian Ocean. Some marine debris found in the region, including a Boeing 777 flaperon, has been confirmed to have originated from the lost aircraft.

The search of the region ended in January 2017, having failed to uncover the aeroplane. However, it revealed underwater mountains taller than Mount Everest, and a valley of underwater volcanoes running for hundreds of miles.

According to Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, a coastal oceanographer at the University of Western Australia, this information could prove useful for fishermen, oceanographers and geologists.

“There are the locations of seamounts which will attract a lot of international deep sea fishermen to the area,” said Professor Pattiaratchi. For instance, where plankton gather around seamounts, fishermen may be more likely to find tuna and other high-value fish.

“To see this work come out of that tragedy that was MH370 is really quite astounding, they’ve taken it to a new level,” said Martin Exel, a deep-sea fisherman who operates in the area.

“From a fishing perspective it would be valuable information – they’ve found whale bones and cables and a drum, it is incredible the resolution [of the data],” he said.

The search involved surveys of 120,000 sq km of the ocean floor, producing three-dimensional models of undersea landforms, and data regarding ocean depths and drifts. This data has been released online by Geoscience Australia.

Knowing the locations of these seamounts could also help model the path of tsunamis; underwater mountains play an important role in dissipating their energy. The data could also help shape our understanding of how the prehistoric supercontinent of Gondwana fractured. Gondwana is believed to have split at least 530 million years ago, and later became part of Pangaea.

According to Dr Stuart Minchin, who heads Geoscience Australia’s environmental geoscience division, the search area is now among the most rigorously mapped regions of the deep ocean.

“It is estimated that only 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s oceans have been surveyed with the kind of technology used in the search for MH370,” he said.

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