Ocean experts helping to pinpoint exact crash site, says report

Oceanographers are playing a key role in determining where exactly did Malaysia Airlines MH370 crash in the southern Indian Ocean.

Their understanding of ocean dynamics could assist investigators in locating MH370's wreckage and recovering the black box, said a report in The Wall Street Journal.

WSJ said six oceanographers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, have been to establish the wind and ocean currents that may have carried debris from flight MH370.

They are using a technique known as drift modelling, which relies on data from satellites equipped with altimeters, instruments that measure sea levels to an accuracy of 10 centimetres, and buoys, which use telemetry to relay information about sea levels and ocean currents, said the report.

By measuring sea levels, the scientists can map the ocean’s contours to build a detailed picture of the marine landscape.

Far from having a uniformly flat surface, “the ocean consists of mounds and troughs,” David Griffin, leader of the CSIRO team told WSJ. “These highs and lows can have a radius of 50 to 100 kilometres.”

Griffin said objects carried in the water, such as aircraft debris, naturally travel along the low contours – which essentially serve as marine highways – and around the oceanic mounds.

"Effectively any debris would follow the contours,” he told WSJ.

Even the storms that forced the suspension of search operations on Tuesday do not affect the team’s drift models, Griffin said.

This is because the objects would still stick to the low contours, though they may travel much more quickly in strong winds.

However, making the oceanographers' task more difficult is the fact that they have no debris to work with and instead have to rely on blurry satellite images of objects which may not be linked to the missing aircraft.

Rewinding the routes these objects took has nonetheless yielded positive results, the WSJ report said.

The objects came from an area very close to where Inmarsat satellite data put the plane on the day of last contact, Dr Griffin said, referring to the UK-based satellite company whose information was used to track the aircraft to its final point somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Although this means that investigators know roughly where flight 370 came down, the area is still fairly large.

Time is not on their side of Dr Griffin and his team.

“You can really only follow things with any certainty for a couple of weeks. We’re getting to the end now of the time when you can backtrack to the original location,” explained Dr Griffin.

Unless debris from the plane is recovered soon, the oceanography team will no longer be able to apply their model and calculate where the plane ended up. – March 27, 2014.