Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March last year. Despite scouring every possible crash zone for 18 months, including vast tracts of the southern Indian Ocean, searchers found nothing of the plane.
This is why a six-foot-long piece of wreckage, found on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, is potentially so exciting. Experts are already agreeing that the barnacle-encrusted object is likely a flaperon, which is the moving part of an airplane wing. Malaysia's deputy transport minister, Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, has added fuel to the speculation, saying "It is almost certain that the flaperon is from a Boeing 777 aircraft."
The next logical question is how searchers could potentially use this wreckage to find the missing aircraft. To find out we asked Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, who is an oceanographer specializing in ocean currents and numerical modeling. He's also been one of the scientists to provide recommendations on search areas, based on ocean movements.
VICE: Professor, if this debris is from MH370, what does that tell us about the plane's location?
Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi: It tells us we've been looking in the right place. It will have come from the east of the Indian Ocean, in the area of the current crash search zone. We predicted finding debris in these areas 12 months ago, where this thing has come up. So personally I'm pleased we got it right.
What's the next step?
Keep searching. We hope that there will be more debris and if it is from MH370, then it's likely there will. Then if we have lots of debris in different locations, we can backtrack all the pieces with a much better accuracy.
There's some ambivalence about backtracking ocean currents. I understand there are so many variables that searchers can be thrown off by hundreds of miles.
Yes, but what else do you want to try? If this wreckage does come from MH370, it actually doesn't change anything. It gives us confidence that we're looking in the right place, but it doesn't make it very easy to find that place. We still have to locate that wreckage at the bottom of the ocean, four kilometers [2.5 miles] down.
So how do you feel right now, personally?
I feel empathy for these families because if this piece of wreckage is from MH370, it takes some of the load from their shoulders. Before they were thinking the plane could be anywhere. Their loved ones could have been starving, or they could have been held prisoner somewhere. But this could be a big step in helping some of these people get a sense of closure.
But it's not a big step in finding the plane?
It's something toward that. It's another part of the jigsaw puzzle and it gives us confidence that we're looking in the right place.
The last claim was that the plane could be traced by examining the species of barnacles growing on the wreckage. Supposedly that would tell us where it came from?
No, because we don't know when the barnacles attached themselves. We can say it's been in the water a certain amount of time, but we have no idea when any one particular barnacle attached itself. There are probably barnacles there from two weeks ago, and others from three months. No, unfortunately this single piece of debris won't tell us where the plane came from. It just tells us we're looking in the right place.
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