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.
“Unfortunately, the largest and oldest barnacles have not yet been made available for research, but thanks to this research we have demonstrated that this method can be used in the case of barnacles that colonized the wreckage shortly after the disaster. This may allow us to ‘reconstruct the complete drift path to the crash site’.” Herbert confirms.
To date, the search for MH370 has covered an area of several thousand kilometers around the north-south corridor through which the aircraft may have traveled. Since ocean temperatures can vary greatly along this route, Herbert says the new method could pinpoint the exact location of plane wreckage.
“French scientist Joseph Bobin, who was one of the first biologists to study the fin, concluded that the largest barnacles associated with it were probably old enough to have colonized the wreckage shortly after the disaster. Very close to the actual crash site, Herbert says, ‘It was The wreckage is presumed to be buried. “It still exists today.” “If so, temperatures recorded in their shells could help narrow the search.”
Even if the plane is not in the area covered by the current search, examining the oldest and largest barnacles could help narrow the search area for the crash site in the Indian Ocean, Herbert says.
“We were all motivated by a desire to understand this tragic story and dispel the mystery surrounding it,” says study co-author Nassar Al-Qattan. “The plane had been lost for more than nine years, and the search was suspended in January 2017. She wanted to develop a new approach that would resume and grant The families of the hundreds of people on board have a chance to learn about their fate.
Flight MH370 took off on 8 March 2014, on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. 38 minutes after take-off, the plane lost contact with ground control, and a few minutes later it disappeared from civilian radars. Military radars tracked the plane’s flight path for another hour, as the Boeing 777 headed west.
The search for the missing machine was the most expensive operation of its kind in history. Initially focused on the South China Sea, subsequent analysis of data from communications satellites indicated that the aircraft continued to fly over the Indian Ocean and headed farther south.
At its peak, 60 ships and 50 aircraft from 26 countries were involved in the search for the missing flight. The research cost more than $100 million, but achieved no progress. The only evidence that researchers found were several parts of the plane that washed up on the shores of islands in the western Indian Ocean.
The reason for the plane’s disappearance is still unknown. Researchers hope that the discovery of the debris, especially the black boxes at the bottom, will shed light on the causes of one of the most mysterious disasters in aviation history.
“Coffee enthusiast. Troublemaker. Incurable introvert. Subtly charming twitter scholar. Award-winning social mediaholic. Internet buff.”