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Barnacle shells could reveal the location of missing flight MH370, study finds

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Studying barnacles attached to wreckage found in the Indian Ocean could reveal the location of the Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing in 2014.

Associate Professor Gregory Herbert, who led a team of researchers from University of South Florida (USF), says the geochemistry of barnacle shells attached to debris from the aircraft could provide clues to the crash location.

Over the last two decades, Herbert refined a method to extract ocean temperatures stored in the chemistry of invertebrate shells. The method was previously used to determine the ages and extinction risk of giant horse conches and investigate the environmental circumstances of early US colonies.

Barnacles and other shelled marine invertebrates grow their shells daily, producing internal layers similar to tree rings. The chemistry of each layer is determined by temperature of the surrounding water at the time the layer was formed.

Herbert’s research team did a growth experiment with live barnacles to read their chemistry unlocked temperature records from the shells of barnacles.

After the experiment, they applied the successful method to small barnacles from the flaperons of MH370.

With help from oceanographers at the National University of Ireland Galway, they combined the barnacles’ water temperature records with oceanographic modelling and successfully generated a partial drift reconstruction.

“Sadly, the largest and oldest barnacles have not yet been made available for research, but with this study, we’ve proven this method can be applied to a barnacle that colonised on the debris shortly after the crash to reconstruct a complete drift path back to the crash origin,” Herbert said.

Up to this point, the search for MH370 spanned several thousands of miles along a north-south corridor deemed ‘the seventh arc’, where investigators believe the plane could have glided after running out of fuel.

Because ocean temperatures can change rapidly along the arc, Herbert says this method could reveal precisely where the plane is. 

“French scientist Joseph Poupin, who was one of the first biologists to examine the flaperon, concluded that the largest barnacles attached were possibly old enough to have colonised on the wreckage very shortly after the crash and very close to the actual crash location where the plane is now,” Herbert said. “If so, the temperatures recorded in those shells could help investigators narrow their search.”

Even if the plane is not on the arc, Herbert says studying the oldest and largest barnacles can still narrow down the areas to search in the Indian Ocean.

“Knowing the tragic story behind the mystery motivated everyone involved in this project to get the data and have this work published,” said Nassar Al-Qattan, a USF graduate who helped analyse the geochemistry of the barnacles. “The plane disappeared more than nine years ago, and we all worked aiming to introduce a new approach to help resume the search, suspended in January 2017, which might help bring some closure to the tens of families of those on the missing plane.”

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