From Flight 370 Hunt, New Insight Into Indian Ocean’s Unknown Depths

2017-03-14T12:28:25+00:00 March 14, 2017|
The Indian Ocean seafloor has been mapped in detail as a result of the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. (Credit: Anthony Auston/Flickr)

(Click to enlarge) The Indian Ocean seafloor has been mapped in detail as a result of the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. (Credit: Anthony Auston/Flickr)

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished with 239 passengers and crew aboard as it crossed the Indian Ocean, triggering a large-scale search for its remains that lasted nearly three years. As a byproduct of the tragedy, scientists have gained access to more than 100,000 square miles of seafloor mapped at a level of detail that provides a rare look at the ocean’s geological processes.

(From New York Times / By Nicholas St.Fleur)– “It’s an incredible trove of data,” said Millard F. Coffin, a marine geophysicist from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “I’ve been working in this part of the Indian Ocean for 30-plus years and over many voyages in the eastern Indian Ocean I’ve never seen this level of resolution.”

Dr. Coffin worked with a group of about 10 scientists from Geoscience Australia, the national geosciences agency in Australia, to analyze data from the search. They were given access to high-resolution sonar information collected on ships, and data obtained by remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater drones. The information was provided by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which led the search.

“When we look at these data, we’re constantly keeping in mind that we wouldn’t have this data if it weren’t for a terrible tragedy,” Dr. Coffin said. He and his colleagues published a summary of their findings on Wednesday in the journal EOS.

Previous satellite data provided scientists with information about the Indian Ocean at a resolution of about five square kilometers, or about two square miles. With the instruments from the search ships, they have collected information at a resolution of meters, and in some locations they have used remote operating vehicles and underwater autonomous vehicles to gain detail on the scale of centimeters.

The search has helped create three-dimensional maps of the ocean floor that reveal its topographical complexity and will allow researchers to further investigate unique features like the oceanic plateau called Broken Ridge, and its southern-flank Diamantina Escarpment. The Flight 370 search also provided information about tectonic and volcanic activity, Dr. Coffin said.

The team plans to release more detailed looks into its findings later in the year, and the full data set from the search will be made available in the middle of the year.

Walter H.F. Smith, a geophysicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the hunt for the lost jetliner highlighted how little we know about the oceans. In a paper that was also published Wednesday in the journal EOS, he and his colleagues explained how common unmapped areas of ocean are.

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