Rough Ocean Complicates Search Efforts For Missing Plane

Mar 26, 2014

Malaysia’s defense minister is calling a satellite’s detection of 122 objects floating in the ocean more than a thousand miles southwest of Australia “the most credible lead that we have” in the continuing search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

But how will crews go about searching a potential crash site roughly the size of Alaska, where the ocean floor is at least 10,000 feet deep?

Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia,  joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the ocean in the area.


  • Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia.



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This is HERE AND NOW, from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

And the search continues today in the southern Indian Ocean for any debris from Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The Malaysian defense minister is calling some satellite images of 122 objects floating in the ocean the most credible lead that authorities have in the search. But getting to those objects is a huge task, because they're looking at a potential crash site about the size of Alaska, where the water is at least 10,000 feet deep.

Chari Pattiaratchi is with us from Perth, Australia. He's a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia. And, professor, can you give us a sense of what the ocean is like in that area?

CHARITHA PATTIARATCHI: This area is what we call the Roaring Forties, which is the stretch of the ocean between 40 and 50 degrees south. Roaring because it's always windy, and the wind makes the roaring noise. It's got the most hostile region of the ocean on Earth.

HOBSON: Hmm. What do you mean? It's just got strong currents?

PATTIARATCHI: It's got strong currents. It's got the largest current in the world in terms of the volume transported. It's got very high waves. So the waves up to somewhere between 15 feet most of the time, and during storms, over 30 feet.

HOBSON: So, what does that mean for any debris that might be floating on the surface?

PATTIARATCHI: Well, it doesn't mean very much for the debris to a certain extent, because if the debris is floating, it's going to float. When you actually have big swells there, you sort of break. So there's a lot of whitewater around. So, it's sort of difficult to identify sometimes. The other thing, also, is that, of course, whatever debris can break into smaller pieces, and that might be an issue. And some of those debris, you know, will obviously sink.

HOBSON: And you're saying that because there is so much chop in the water, that much of what they think is debris might end up just being whitecaps on the sea.

PATTIARATCHI: No. They can distinguish between whitecaps and sea. So it's easier to spot, let's say, from the air. What they're trying to do is to spot the debris from the air, and then they direct the ships to go there. But staying on a ship, which is, imagine, going up and down 30 feet in 10 seconds, and you're trying to look out to find the debris, that is the problem.

HOBSON: Well, what else might be floating in this part of the oceans?

PATTIARATCHI: This area is usually pretty clear of debris, as far as we can say. It's away from what we call the subtropical gyres, which tend to aggregate debris. But, you know, this is an area where, because it's so rough, people don't go to, you know. There is no major shipping lines. So that is pretty remote area.

HOBSON: So, if they do find something on the surface that turns out to be a part of the plane and then decide that they want to go down into the ocean to find more that might have sunk, they might actually have to go far from where that surface debris is, right?

PATTIARATCHI: Exactly, exactly. So, it's sort of three phases that you're going to think about, is that the first phase is actually finding the debris to link it with the plane. Then they actually have to go back to where we might actually say the crash site is, and actually find the location of the debris on the bottom of the ocean at something like 10,000 feet.

HOBSON: Do you think they'll find it?

PATTIARATCHI: Oh, they will find it. Absolutely, they will find it. But I can't tell you a timescale. It could be days, weeks, months or years.

HOBSON: Chari Pattiaratchi is a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia. He's been speaking with us via Skype from Perth. Professor, thank you so much.

PATTIARATCHI: All right. You're welcome.

HOBSON: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.