Sea creatures on the road.  Barnacles will help you find flight MH370

The disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane in 2014 was one of the most intriguing mysteries of the past decade. Communications were lost with the plane, which was on a routine flight to China, and it disappeared over the Indian Ocean. Despite unprecedented searches, no trace of the plane or the hundreds of people on board were found.

Almost no trace. A year after the disaster, a metal fragment that was identified as an element of the missing machine washed up on the shore of Reunion Island, east of Madagascar. It was the so-called flaperon, that is, the wing element responsible for increasing the lift force during take-off, landing, and making turns.

American researchers believe that this element will allow us to determine exactly where the device malfunctioned. Specifically – not the item itself, but the sea creatures that grow on it.

These are the so-called barnacles – sessile crustaceans that attach to the bodies of large animals or the hulls of ships on which they travel long distances. Barnacles build limestone shells around themselves. They are supposed to help solve the mystery of the missing plane.

Professor Gregory Herbert, a geologist at the University of South Florida, was inspired when he saw photos of plane wreckage discovered on Reunion Island.

“The shell was covered in barnacles, and as soon as I saw it, I immediately started sending emails to other researchers because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash site,” the geologist says.

As an evolutionary biologist, Herbert studies marine systems, with a particular focus on shell-forming marine invertebrates such as oysters, mussels and barnacles. Over the past 20 years, Herbert has devised and improved a method that allows the temperature at which an animal is located to be determined based on the geochemical properties of the shell. He is convinced that this method can reconstruct the path along which the plane’s wreckage drifted. Thus determining the location where the machine broke down.

Barnacles and other marine invertebrates constantly expand their shells, forming tree-ring-like layers every day. The chemical composition of each layer depends on the temperature of the water surrounding it at the time of its formation. In the study, published in the journal AGU Advances, Herbert’s research team conducted an experiment on barnacles to read the temperature changes they experienced from the composition of their shells.

After conducting this experiment and proving that this method could indeed reproduce temperature changes, the researchers used it to analyze the small barnacles found on the MH370 flaperon. The analysis, combined with models of ocean currents in the Indian Ocean, allowed them to partially reconstruct the feature’s drift path.

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