Debris linked to missing MH370 flight, but answers remain at sea

Two recently found pieces of debris are almost certainly from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, but they cannot be used to trace the plane's crash site. 

Candace Lotter/AP
South African teen Liam Lotter poses with a piece of debris thought to be part of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, in Wartburg, South Africa, March 11, 2016.

Investigators have confirmed that two debris pieces found since December match Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared more than two years ago in March 2014.

The finding is a helpful step in what has become the most high-profile plane search of this century, but oceanographers doubt it will assist the investigators still combing the ocean floor for signs of a plane crash.

"It's not only ocean currents, because it's on the ocean floor, it's also winds and waves, so you need to be able to model three things correctly," says Luca Centurioni, a scientist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. "And we just cannot do it."

The pieces, found Dec. 27, 2015, and Feb. 27, 2016, were found at random on the coast of Mozambique. Both "almost certainly" originated with the Malaysia Airlines flight, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau announced Tuesday. 

Australia's investigators used the unique text on the debris pieces to determine their origin, the BBC reported. The text "NO STEP" and "676EB" match that of Malaysia Airlines planes, and no other Boeing 777 has been known to crash – or spontaneously fall apart – in that part of the world. 

Identifying these two debris findings, even without the third confirmed piece, prove the plane crashed into the ocean, tragically killing the 239 passengers flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but they offer very little insight into the crash site. 

"When we model particle motions on a computer, we're trying to use 100,000 or a million," says Sarah Gille, an oceanographer at the University of California San Diego. "Three [debris pieces] is really small."

While theories abound about how this could impact the international search for remains, the truth is as murky as the ocean waters where the search has gone on for months. Maps describing ocean floor topography in general, and the part of the Indian Ocean where the plane crashed in particular, are less detailed than those of the planet Mars, NOAA researchers Walter Smith and Karen Marks wrote for the American Geophysical Union.

Scientists from around the world have been battling the elements and international diplomacy to locate the plane, but the debris does not offer a path back to the MH370 crash site.

"While the location of this finding does not cast doubt on the [Australian authorities'] choice of search area... it can not provide particularly strong support for it either, because the trajectories of drifting items are so chaotic," wrote David Griffin, an oceanographer with Australia's national science agency. 

Modeling the debris path from the crash site with enough accuracy to be useful would require tens or even hundreds of particles, knowledge of ocean currents and weather, and more accurate maps of the ocean floor. In his research, Dr. Centurioni has examined such situations experimentally, trying to trace the point of origin by  investigating the path of the scattered remains via real data from satellite tracked drifting buoys. But even then, the potential for error is so wide that the analysis yields an unsearchable expanse.

"It's never enough to comb the ocean floor until you find something," Centurioni says. 

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the details of Dr. Centurioni's research experiments in oceanography.]​

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