Flight MH370: Indian Ocean objects might have drifted hundreds of miles

21 March 2014

Satellite and meteorology experts have expressed doubt about the prospect of finding objects in the Indian Ocean believed to be linked to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, citing the possibility that the debris could have drifted hundreds of miles since it was first detected.

The northern and southern "corridors" where the search for MAS Flight MH 370 is concentrated

The northern and southern “corridors” where the search for MAS Flight MH 370 is concentrated

Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced on Thursday that a “credible” sighting had been made in the Indian Ocean, about 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) south-west of Perth, of objects that could be related to the search, based on satellite imagery from five days ago. Four aircraft have been tasked to search the area by Australia’s maritime search agency.

The images were captured by Digital Globe, a commercial satellite operator that attributed the finding to the WorldView-2 satellite from an image dated to 16 March.

Martin Babakhan, a meteorologist and lecturer at Australia’s University of Newcastle, said that since the satellite images were taken the objects found could have moved “about 200 or 300 kilometres from the original location” in a westerly direction, closer to Australia.

“I was looking at that ocean all week and that particular region has a very, very strong current. The weather can vary very quickly. There are extreme weather conditions there that would make any search difficult,” he said.

Australian authorities are searching for #MH370. Possible debris detected somewhere near this area

Australian authorities are searching for #MH370. Possible debris detected somewhere near this area

Janette Lindesay, an associate professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, also said the objects could have moved hundreds of miles, and added that while the possible debris would be drifting generally west, it may have been buffeted by other winds and drifted north or south, making the search even more difficult.

“It is an area with a continuing series of low pressure weather systems that are steered by this westerly wind. They [the weather systems] have strong winds associated with them, and the wind direction also changes between south westerly and north westerly, depending on where you are in relation to these cold fronts,” she said.

“So depending on what weather systems are passing through the area, the wind directions will change, and that will make a difference to which way the wreckage, if it is a wreckage, will move.”

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said in a statement that another cold front was expected to pass through the area on Sunday, but added that “drizzle and associated low cloud and reduction in visibility are likely to continue. Winds are forecast to be relatively light, less than 15 knots, with swell easing below two metres. Little change to conditions is expected tomorrow.”

The objects have yet to be found more than a day after Abbott’s announcement, forcing him to defend himself for making the announcement so quickly.

Chris Rizos, a professor of geodesy and navigation at the University of New South Wales, said that he believed it was unlikely the images were of a plane.

“The likelihood that there could possibly be a downed aircraft is probably on the low side. There are question marks being raised as to whether you could interpret this as being anything other than flotsam,” he said.

He added that if the DigitalGlobe satellites are normally designed for analysis of land masses, not ocean searches.

“Satellite images are not good for this type of application on water because water tends to be mostly featureless,” he said.

US Navy plane on the tarmac at Perth International Airport

US Navy plane on the tarmac at Perth International Airport

Andrew Dempster, the director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, said that the types of satellites being used were problematic when there were poor weather conditions at play.

“Satellites are not a great solution to working out air flight paths because they are not looking at the time,” he said. “They are OK at this stage because it is easier to get a satellite [to look at an area] than to get boats or aircraft out there. But if for instance it had been stormy or cloudy then the imagery would not have come up.”

Australia’s Maritime Search Agency are continuing the search.

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