SYDNEY – The search for Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean is taking place over one of the most harsh and isolated points on the planet.
Australian-led efforts to find the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board, are concentrated on a stretch of water 2,500 km (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, Western Australia.
Four out of the five search planes had returned empty-handed by Friday evening. Two Chinese aircraft were to arrive in Perth on Saturday to join the search, and two Japanese aircraft will arrive Sunday. A small flotilla of ships coming from China was still several days away.
The region is little traversed by maritime traffic, and when alerts went out to merchant shipping in the area Tuesday, the nearest vessel was a two-day journey away. It is also windy and lashed by huge waves.
“Once you get there, the influence of Antarctica . . . starts to come clearly on the ocean,” said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at Sydney’s University of New South Wales.
Van Sebille, who was on a research ship in the area in December, said that even in calm conditions, the place is challenging. With the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn approaching, it is set to deteriorate.
Nathan Bindoff, professor of physical oceanography at the University of Tasmania, said: “The Indian Ocean sector is a region that has strong winds and big waves. It is the windiest sector of the Southern Ocean.”
Bindoff said vessels typically see only one other ship on a 50-day voyage in the area, and most likely closer to Antarctica and its research bases than the area where potential wreckage has been spotted.The strength of the currents could also hamper efforts to find any wreckage, the oceanographers said, with satellite imagery of the potential debris showing the objects bobbing in a sea where waves can be towering.
The images were taken Sunday but only released by Australia on Thursday.
Australian authorities and the U.S. company that collected the images, DigitalGlobe, said the delay was due to vast amounts of data that needed to be analyzed to identify whether the pictures were relevant enough to shift the focus of the search.
DigitalGlobe spokesman Turner Brinton said the company’s five high-resolution satellites capture more than 3 million sq. km of Earth imagery each day: “This volume of imagery is far too vast to search through in real time without an idea of where to look.”
Brinton said more than 6.3 million Internet users are participating in a crowdsourcing”effort launched by the company to help locate the plane, looking at more than 485 million “map views.” More than 6.7 million features have been tagged by the crowd, he said.
Van Sebille said any wreckage from the plane could already be 1,000 km from where the jet hit the water, making the job of backtracking to the crash site from the debris sighting even more difficult. “You have very, very strong winds there, quite high waves. You’ve got among the strongest currents in the world,” he said.
The search for MH370 has been compared to that of an Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 with the loss of 228 lives.
But the head of the investigation into that accident, Alain Bouillard, has said this search is much more difficult, given that French officials knew the location of AF447 four minutes before impact.
Australian authorities have cautioned against presuming the objects in the water belong to the missing Malaysian plane.
“It could just be a container that has fallen off a ship — we just don’t know,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday.
However, van Sebille said there is rarely much debris in the area of this search. “It’s a pretty pristine part of the ocean, which indeed means that if this is debris . . . it’s highly likely either from the plane or it comes from some ship in the ocean itself, and there’s not a lot of shipping going on,” he said.
“It’s really off the beaten track,” agreed Tim Huxley, chief executive of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings in Hong Kong. “It’s a lonely, lonely place down there.”
If the objects are from the Boeing 777, recovery teams will work as quickly as possible to locate the rest of the wreckage in the hope it leads them to the data and cockpit voice recorders.
To do this, scientists have developed computer models to effectively play waves and winds backward, allowing rescue workers to retrace the movements of debris to the site of a crash.
Investigators hope such recent developments in oceanography will help shed light on the baffling disappearance of Flight MH370.
But not all experts agree computer simulations will easily replace the grueling routine of searching from the air and the sea.
Although research has continued since the Air France jet plowed into the Atlantic, a detailed annex to the report on that disaster, which was blamed mainly on pilot error, raised questions in 2012 over the consistency of such “retro-drift” calculations.
For example, when the French Navy dropped special buoys at the same spot a year after the crash, they scattered hundreds of kilometers apart, highlighting the turbulence of ocean currents.
If the report of suspected debris is confirmed, naval vessels will also drag a sonar through the water to seek the black boxes through radio beacons, but time for this is running out.
The black boxes are designed to have a battery life of at least 30 days, leaving possibly only 17 days to locate them before the signals die.
In 2012, France’s BEA air crash investigation agency recommended in its report on the Air France disaster that the battery life on locator beacons be increased to 90 days. Although this has been backed by global regulators, it will not become mandatory until later in this decade.
Other proposals that could potentially make it easier to find MH370 remain bogged down in talks between regulators and the aviation industry. These include adding a new frequency for the beacons so that their signals travel farther and can more easily be heard by military ships lacking specialist air crash recovery equipment.
Existing signals travel about 2,000 to 3,000 meters (6,560 to 9,840 feet) under water, whereas the area now being combed for debris is up to 4,000 meters deep.
To close this gap, search teams would bring in boats capable of carrying long cables to drag sonars at lower depths, but experts note that moving them into place can take time.
If by the end of 30 days nothing is found, the search could rely on remote underwater vehicles to scour the seabed.