Search for missing plane yields no results yet in ‘pretty rough part of the world’ – Washington Post
“It’s about the most inaccessible spot that you could imagine on the face of the earth,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters on a trip Friday to Papua New Guinea. “But if there is anything down there, we will find it.”
The search, however, is complicated by the fact that those satellite images were taken Sunday, meaning that any debris could since have moved more than 100 nautical miles in strong ocean currents and unpredictable eddies — or even sunk to the ocean floor at least 10,000 feet below the surface.
To make matters worse, a series of weather fronts are expected to pass over the search area from Sunday, threatening stronger winds, rain, poor visibility and whitecaps on the ocean.
Time is critical, not just to find anyone who might have survived, but also because if the Boeing 777 did indeed crash in that area, its black box will transmit a locating signal only for two to four more weeks before its battery runs out.
The grainy satellite images published by Australia on Thursday showed two large objects bobbing in the ocean about 1,500 miles southwest of the city of Perth, in what officials called perhaps the most credible lead yet in the investigation into the fate of the plane. But there is no guarantee that those objects, around 80 and 15 feet long respectively, have not sunk by now.
“Something that was floating on the sea that long ago may no longer be floating,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters in Perth, according to the Reuters news agency. “It may have slipped to the bottom.”
Australia, the United States and New Zealand sent surveillance planes to survey the area where they believe the debris might have drifted Thursday, but low fog hampered the operation. The weather improved on Friday, with low cloud coverage but better visibility beneath the clouds.
John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said a radar survey of the search area Thursday did not yield any results. As a result, Friday’s effort was carried out as a visual-only search, with “low-flying aircraft and very highly trained and skilled observers looking out the aircraft windows.”
That means more planes, flying more closely together, would be needed, he said.
Three Australian Orion surveillance planes and a U.S. Navy Poseidon were joined on Friday by a long-range corporate jet, with trained spotters at the windows, Young said.
“Although the search area is much smaller than we started with, it nonetheless is a big area when you are looking out the window and trying to see something by eye, so we may have to do this a few times to be confident of our coverage of the search area,” he said in a video released by AMSA. “We want to find these objects because they are the best lead to where we might find people to be rescued.”
The extreme conditions mean that even if the debris is confirmed to be part of the lost Malaysia Airlines plane, the search could be entering a still more difficult stage, one that could require years and tens of millions of dollars.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, while cautioning that the debris was still unidentified, said he has asked select foreign countries to lend underwater acoustic equipment that could help locate the black box. He said he would also speak with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to ask for further assistance.
“This is going to be a long haul,” Hishammuddin said.
Japan is also sending two surveillance aircraft, while China is sending several ships and helicopters to the area.
“Compared to what we saw yesterday, the visibility was great,” Australian Flight Lt. Russell Adams told reporters Friday in Perth shortly after returning from the first flight of the day. “We have got a lot of hope, and if conditions remain as they are, hopefully we will find something soon.”
However, Friday’s relatively benign weather in the area is unlikely to hold. The series of weather fronts expected to pass over the search area starting Sunday mean more low cloud cover, rain, winds reaching up to 30 to 40 knots, waves of up to 30 feet high and more whitecaps — all making it much harder to spot debris, according to Australian marine meteorologist Roger Badham.
“Really, when you look at things in the next seven days, this afternoon and tomorrow are by far the best conditions we will see until the following weekend,” he said.
The Roaring Forties are named for their latitude and their strong westerly winds.
When winter weather sets in around May, the seas will become significantly more inhospitable in the search area, Badham warned, with winds often surpassing 50 knots. “It’s a pretty rough part of the world,” he said. “The fronts there can be quite severe.”
Even if the debris is found and proves to have come from the missing Malaysian airliner, finding the main wreckage won’t be easy. Complex calculations, bolstered by measurements of ocean currents, would be required to track back and estimate where the plane might have crashed, said David Gallo, who co-led the search for Air France Flight 447 in 2009 and is director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Every piece of debris will move in different ways, adding another layer of complexity and uncertainty, he said.
“Some might stand higher in the water, like a sailboat that will be moved around by the wind,” Gallo said. “Others may be like icebergs, more underwater, and moved more by the currents. So they don’t all end up in the same place. They scatter.”
Matthew England, of the Climate Change Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, warned that this was a deep area of the Indian Ocean with rapid and complex currents, above an ocean floor marked by “plenty of ridges and canyons.”
“It’s an eddy-rich region,” he said. “Which means that superimposed on the long-term average current are these little eddies that spawn off the current and have a life of their own,” he said. “They pinch off a bit of water and might move counter to the main flow.”
Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, said his modeling of ocean currents suggested the debris could have drifted up to 310 miles to the west and 125 miles to the north between March 8, when the plane disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and March 20, when the airborne search began in the southern Indian Ocean.
That means that even assuming the debris was found, ships equipped with sonar technology would have a huge area of ocean to search for signals from the plane’s black box, in heavy seas and in a race against time before the built-in location beacon runs out of battery power.
“Remember, the black box battery only lasts for a month, so you have now got a window of two weeks,” he said. “I would be surprised if they find it in that period.”
When Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic in similarly deep water in June 2009, the first wreckage and bodies were pulled out of the ocean five days after the plane’s disappearance. But searchers still needed two more years to locate the black box in an operation that cost tens of millions of dollars and used sophisticated underwater drones trawling the ocean floor.
Experts said the remoteness and the ocean conditions, as well as the simple fact that so much time has passed since the Malaysia Airlines plane vanished, make the task significantly harder this time around.
Gallo said the debris field for Air France 447 was “pretty large” and had moved only about 30 miles north of the plane’s last position when it was found. “There was a committee of some of the smartest analysts trying to figure out where in the haystack these things were first coming from,” he said. “But the place they first picked was the wrong one — and we spent two months looking in the wrong place.”