A University of South Florida geoscientist says the key to finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could rest with analyzing barnacles. Attached to its debris, some barnacles have already been recovered from locations around the Indian Ocean.
His work so far with barnacles recovered from a flaperon (a type of aileron) has produced a partial map showing how the debris likely moved across the ocean. A future map leading to the crash site could help to renew the official search effort, which ended in 2017.
The method developed by associate professor Gregory Herbert reveals which water temperatures a barnacle has passed through based on the chemical makeup of its shell. As barnacles grow a small amount each day, the chemical changes record a detailed history of where the barnacle has been.
In a recent study, Herbert carried out a growth experiment with live barnacles to record the chemistry for each temperature, which enabled him to decode further shells. Then he analyzed some dead barnacles from the flaperon and reconstructed several winding paths across the Indian Ocean – each of them a possible course based on the data collected. But because these were younger barnacles, he could only trace a partial path that stopped short off the western coast of Australia.
This spot lies to the northeast of the search area, where rescuers have searched some 46,000 square miles using sonar, submarines and other high-tech means. The search zone, the so-called “Seventh Arc,” covered the predicted crash area for the plane, which had made a satellite ping in the area.
Further extending Herbert’s drift map – to see if it would join up with the Seventh Arc after all – would require better data, and there’s only one place to get it.
“Sadly, the largest and oldest barnacles have not yet been made available for research, but with this study, we’ve proven this method can be applied to a barnacle that colonized on the debris shortly after the crash to reconstruct a complete drift path back to the crash origin,” Herbert said in a statement.
Authorities called off the official search for the plane in 2017, but it remains a source of great interest around the world, including from conspiracy theorists. A total of 239 people died on board the 2014 flight that took off from Kuala Lumpur on its way to Beijing.
“Knowing the tragic story behind the mystery motivated everyone involved in this project to get the data and have this work published,” said Nassar Al-Qattan, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida, in a statement. “The plane disappeared more than nine years ago, and we all worked aiming to introduce a new approach to help resume the search, which might help bring some closure to the tens of families of those on the missing plane.”