More debris from MH370? Investigators are taking a look

A new piece of what could be Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has washed up along South Africa's coast, and the countries involved are investigating the implications.

Candace Lotter/AP
Detail from part of a piece of debris which may be part of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, in Wartburg, 37km (22 miles) out of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, March 9, 2016. Another piece believed to come from the plane has also been found in South Africa.

Pieces believed to come from Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines flight that mysteriously disappeared in March 2014, are turning up  regularly and muddying the diplomatic waters of the international search.

A South African archaeologist found what appeared to be part of a Rolls Royce aircraft engine on Tuesday, South Africa's Sunday Times reported. Malaysian authorities are sending a team to investigate whether it really belongs to the crashed plane.

The South African archaeologist who found the piece understood the possible implications quickly after he recognized the distinctive brown honeycomb from photos of other possible debris, reported Euan McKirdy reported for CNN.

"Being an archaeologist I’m always looking for things with my nose to the ground,” Neels Kruger told The Associated Press. “When I flipped it around, I didn’t know immediately what it was but just thought, ‘Oh my word!’"

He saw the Rolls Royce logo, the correct engine type for the plane and quickly sent photos to a few pilot friends for verification. He then notified the South African Civil Aviation Authority and the Australian authorities, who are currently studying two other possible plane pieces.

So far, the debris neither supports nor contradicts the search plans by Australian authorities, wrote David Griffin, an oceanographer with Australia's national science agency. This could be the third piece of the Malaysian Airlines flight found along Africa's southern coast and the second piece this month.

If this piece, along with the two other shards currently under study in Australia, are confirmed to be parts from the plane, it would indicate that ocean currents carried the plane debris west from its unknown crash site near western Australia, then south west along Reunion Island, Mozambique, and now toward South Africa's southern tip.

Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Where in the Indian Ocean Australia is looking for the missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft.

Computer models of debris traveling along ocean currents usually involves 100,000 or even one million particles, not three, says Sarah Gille, an oceanographer at the University of California San Diego. The variability in ocean eddies makes the finding "not so surprising," although she would expect at least some debris to move east toward Australia.

"Things have been found that were dropped in the ocean years later," Dr. Gille says.

Mossel Bay, where the Rolls Royce debris was found on Tuesday, is over 1,250 miles (2,000 km) southwest of the resort in Mozambique where suspected debris was found just weeks ago, the Guardian reported. Mossel Bay is over 2,000 miles from Reunion Island, where the only confirmed MH370 debris fragment was found, and that site is another 2,000 miles west of the search site near western Australia. 

Another challenge to identifying, and certainly searching, a possible crash site is that researchers have depth measurements for only 5 percent of the sea floor where MH370 is believed to have crashed. Even that knowledge comes primarily from decades-old technology, NOAA researchers Walter Smith and Karen Marks wrote for the American Geophysical Union. This is not unique to this area; in general, maps describing the surface of Mars are more detailed and accurate than those of the ocean floor.

"There are no measured depths in public databases at the locations where ping contacts [believed to be from MH370] were reported," the researchers wrote in a May 2014 paper. 

Many who lost family members when the plane and its 239 passengers vanished mysteriously are anxious to continue the search, and investigators have promised to keep searching until the summer. The finding of new pieces may give family members hope. However, it also highlights a series of diplomatic questions that have become more complex as the search continues. The search is technically multi-national, but in many ways each involved country is conducting a separate search, Tania Branigan wrote for the Guardian.

Because of the diplomatic relationship of the involved countries, researchers from the United States, for example, are often obliged to channel their advice through the Department of State. The US Navy could potentially offer its equipment and expertise, but since the search is occurring in Australian waters, the offer must neither offend nor release classified information.

The airline company responsible for the flight is based in Malaysia, but some of the flight's passengers were Chinese. And South Africa will stay involved for as long as suspicious debris keeps washing up on its shores.

"Given existing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and strained communications between several key regional countries, it is hard to imagine meaningful co-operation or military transparency between them on information such as radar readings in the effort to locate the Malaysian Airlines flight," Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Institute of Peace, told the Guardian.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that further study is warranted, Malaysia's transport minister Liow Tiong Lai said, according to the Guardian. He has urged caution in the past, however, as investigators have still concluded that only one piece is part of Flight MH370, The Christian Science Monitor reported:

The first piece of MH370 debris was confirmed this past September, after a full month of investigation by France's aeronautical research laboratory near Toulouse. Found on Reunion Island, a French territory off the east coast of Africa, the a wing part – a flaperon – had washed up nearly 2,000 miles from the rough location of the crash site. Most official searches for the missing plane have been called off, but each new debris discovery both reignites efforts and suggests the rest of the plane lies deep beneath the Indian Ocean.

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