Roaring Forties, ocean depth complicate search for plane

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Announcement by the Malaysian government on Monday that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 crashed into the Indian Ocean does little to solve the mystery of what happened to that ill-fated flight. It may take many years before any answers emerge on how 239 passengers and crewmembers died in the accident, with nature presenting enormous challenges.

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Aviation experts say it may take months to years to recover wreckage and the cockpit voice and flight data recorders of the Boeing 777, which disappeared after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing, more than two weeks ago. It could also take years before an accident report is released with a probable cause.

Complicating the search is the “Roaring Forties,” which “refers to the belt of ripping westerly winds, aided by the Earth’s rotation, between roughly 40 and 50 degrees latitude in the southern hemisphere,” according to an article by Jason Samenow posted in the website of the Washington Post.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced at a press conference on late Monday that analysis of satellite data indicated the Boeing 777 crashed into a remote part of the Indian Ocean, and all lives were lost.

Analysis of satellite data is a very preliminary step, and wreckage and the recorders must be recovered before facts are established, said former National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator Al Yurman.

“Some parts have to be recovered and positively identified that they came from that Malaysia Airlines plane,” he said.

Once there is positive identification, investigators “have to backtrack” and find a debris field to determine whether the plane made a controlled or an uncontrolled descent into the ocean, Yurman added.

A debris field “could be 20 miles or hundreds of miles” from where satellite images showed what is believed to be wreckage of the Malaysian jumbo jet.

Former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said there could be multiple debris fields. He added much depends on ocean currents that could have scattered wreckage.

“We don’t know how many debris fields there are,” Hall said.

Hall and Yurman said the depth of the Indian Ocean—which has an average depth of 12,990 feet—may make it difficult to recover wreckage, and they expect most or much of the wreckage will not be recovered.

It took nearly two years to recover the so-called black box containing the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders after Air France Flight 447 crashed into a remote area of the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. All 228 passengers and crew aboard the plane heading from Rio de Janeiro to Paris were killed.

Challenges from nature
Besides the depth of the Indian Ocean, the “Roaring Forties” presents challenges to the parties seeking to piece up evidence on the ill-fated flight.

“Winds rage in this region as it sits in the transition zone between the more tranquil, balmy subtropics and frigid polar vortex zipping around the South Pole. Pressures and temperatures change rapidly here, driving the winds frequently over 30 to 40 miles per hour [48 to 64 kilometers per hour], and give rise to storms,” an article posted in the website of the Washington Post said.

The article quoted Matthew England of the Climate Change Center at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, as warning that what lies beneath the ocean “is even more chaotic.”

“. . . this was a deep area of the Indian Ocean with rapid and complex currents, above an ocean floor marked by ‘plenty of ridges and canyons,” England was quoted as saying.

Wild weather halted on Tuesday the search for the wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed into the Indian Ocean, frustrating attempts to determine why it veered off course and bring closure to grieving relatives.

The air and sea mission for MH370 was suspended for the day due to gale force winds, driving rain and huge waves, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority which is coordinating the multinational hunt southwest of Perth.

MICT, AFP AND THE TIMES

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