Where Did Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 Crash?

JUST CHECK THE barnacles. That’s how University of South Florida geoscientists say we can reconstruct the drift path of debris from the downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in 2014 with 239 passengers onboard.

They have the science to back up their faith in the barnacles, too.

When the flaperon piece of MH370 washed ashore on Reunion Island in July of 2015, it was covered with the barnacle Lepas anatifera. That got Gregory Herbert, an associate professor in the School of Geosciences at USF, thinking.


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“The debris was covered in barnacles, and as soon as I saw that, I immediately began sending emails to the search investigators because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash location,” Herbert said in a statement.

Now he’s published a study in AGU Advances that shows how the internal layers of barnacles offer a chemistry that is determined by the temperature of the water at the time the layer was formed.

He also led an international research team to find a partial drift path of the MH370 debris, thanks to researching small barnacles on the flaperon.

The team has tracked live barnacles for the first time, unlocking temperature records from the shells. It worked well enough that the team gained access to small barnacles from MH370 and combined the barnacles’ water temperature records with oceanographic modeling and successfully generated a partial drift reconstruction. Now they just need access to the largest barnacles found on the debris to take it a step further.

This type of research is nothing new for Herbert, who’s determined the ages and extinction risks of the giant horse conchs and investigated the environmental circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Jamestown colony.

“French scientist Joseph Poupin, who was one of the first biologists to examine the debris,” Herbert said, “concluded that the largest barnacles attached were possibly old enough to have colonized on the wreckage very shortly after the crash and very close to the actual crash location where the plane is now.”

The drift path they discovered is farther south than some previous reconstructions, but matched others showing that the MH370 flaperon had a southward trajectory into cooler waters while drifting across the Indian Ocean. The piece started in warmer waters before shifting to the cooler waters for a “significant part of the latter drift.”

To do a complete reconstruction, the team needs access to those larger, older barnacles. “Sadly, they have not yet been made available for research,” Herbert said, “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.”

The lost flight MH370 disappeared in March of 2014, and the search was fraught with issues from the start. It was suspended in January of 2017. With a search area thousands of miles in size, there is one thing going for any renewed effort, at least from a barnacle point of view. The ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean can change rapidly in the area, really giving the barnacle research some added heft.

“The plane disappeared more than nine years ago,” Nassar Al-Qattan, a USF geochemistry doctoral graduate who helped analyze the barnacles, said in a statement, “and we all worked aiming to introduce a new approach to help resume the search.”

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Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland. 

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