Tue, Aug 18, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Dumping grounds

Oceanic junk ranges from Legos to suspected jet wreckage

By Tim Sullivan  /  AP, New Delhi

A sculpture of a fish made from waste products collected from the sea.

Photo: Reuters/Vincent West

For years along the Cornish coast of Britain, Atlantic Ocean currents have carried thousands of Lego pieces onto the beaches. In Kenya, cheap flip-flop sandals are churned relentlessly in the Indian Ocean surf, until finally being spit out onto the sand. In Bangladesh, fishermen are haunted by floating corpses that the Bay of Bengal sometimes puts in their path.

And now, perhaps, the oceans have revealed something else: parts of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the jetliner that vanished 17 months ago with 239 people on board.

Experts believe it crashed into the vast emptiness of the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Africa and Australia. While some wreckage presumably sank, some is also thought to have joined the millions of tons of oceanic debris — from Legos accidentally spilled from cargo ships to abandoned fishing nets to industrial trash — that can spend years being carried by the Earth’s currents, sometimes turning up thousands of miles away from where they entered the water.


So there was little surprise among oceanographers when part of a jet’s wing, suspected wreckage from the vanished Boeing 777, was found two weeks ago along the shores of Reunion, a French island off the African coast. Malaysian investigators were also dispatched this week to the Maldives, a South Asian archipelago nation, to examine debris that had recently washed ashore there.

“The ocean is not a bathtub. It’s in constant motion,” said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer with the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London who has spent years studying how currents carry debris. “At the surface it’s this giant, churning machine that moves things from A to B,” he said. “And it’s connecting all the areas of the globe.”

Often, that giant churning machine also moves in fairly predictable ways, with currents and winds moving in predictable directions and speeds.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanographer at the University of Western Australia, used computer modeling last year to predict that debris from Flight 370 might end up somewhere near Reunion, or nearby Madagascar, about now.

But he said that if the wing part found on Reunion turns out to be from Flight 370 — French investigators are still examining it, though Malaysian officials have said it definitively came from the disappeared jet — then he doubts the debris found in the Maldives is also from the jetliner.

Because the Maldives lie north of the equator and Reunion Island is to the south, finding wreckage in both spots is highly unlikely, he said, because ocean currents and winds make it extremely difficult for flotsam to cross the equator.

Plus, he adds, it would be exceedingly difficult for any Flight 370 debris to have ended up in the Maldives at all by now. To reach there, the wreckage would have had to float west from the current search area off Australia and toward Africa, then turn north and travel along the African coast past Somalia and into the Arabian Sea, before turning south and east toward the Maldives. That would be a massive journey to make in just 17 months; debris found on Reunion, in contrast, could have traveled in a relatively simple counterclockwise arc.

“If it is from MH370, then that’s a very hard thing to explain. Not entirely impossible, because we’re talking about nature,” he said.


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