Barnacles may be the answer to the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Barnacles may be the answer to the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Lepas anatifera being grown in the lab
Lepas anatifera being grown in the lab
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Lepas anatifera being grown in the lab
Lepas anatifera being grown in the lab

The mystery of flight MAF370, which vanished over the Indian Ocean with all hands, has baffled the world for nine years, but now a geoscientist at the University of South Florida may have found a surprising way to locate the wreck using barnacles.

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. About 38 minutes later, the Boeing 777-200ER with its 227 passengers and 12 crew made its last radio communication as it flew over the South China Sea.

Minutes later, the aircraft vanished from air traffic control radar and Malaysian military radar tracked it for another hour as it deviated from its planned course and headed west over the Malay Peninsula and the Andaman Sea before getting out of range. Later data from the Inmarsat satellite indicated that it was flying southwestward over the Indian Ocean.

Exactly what happened to MAF370 remains a mystery to this day. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) concluded that some malfunction caused the plane's complement to succumb to hypoxia, but lack of firm evidence resulted in a remarkable raft of imaginative hypotheses as to its fate.

These ideas included a terrorist attack, hijacking by North Korea, an assassination attack aimed at one of the passengers, a secret diversion to the US air base on Diego Garcia, one of the crew committing suicide, a deliberate or accidental shoot down, a cyberattack, and the fringy claims about meteors, black holes, and alien abductions.

The answers might be found if the airliner could be located in the 28.3 million mi² (72.4 million km²) of the Indian Ocean, but an extensive four-year search with sonar, submersibles, drift models, and other high-tech methods have failed to turn anything up.

Now, Gregory Herbert, an associate professor in the School of Geosciences at USF has proposed a new search method based on barnacles. About a year after the crash, debris from MAF370, including a flaperon, washed up on the shores of Réunion Island off the coast of Africa. What was especially interesting is that the flaperon was home to a colony of several generations of stalked barnacles called Lepas anatifera.

According to Herbert, these barnacles add layers to their shells on a daily basis and the ratio of oxygen isotopes absorbed by the shell varies with the surface temperature of the water that the debris was floating in. In addition, some of the barnacles were so large that they might have colonized the debris shortly after the crash.

By measuring the isotope levels of barnacles grown in the laboratory under controlled conditions, Herbert and his team were able to combine the water temperature measurements recorded in the shell layers and apply them to oceanographic modeling to create partial drift profiles.

In other words, the large surface water temperature variations found in the Indian Ocean along the probable course of MAF370 and recorded in the shells allowed the team and oceanographers at the University of Galway to potentially backtrack the drift of the debris to its source.

Because the largest barnacles were not available for study, the crash site is still unknown, but the new method may at least help to narrow any future searches to a more practical area.

"Knowing the tragic story behind the mystery motivated everyone involved in this project to get the data and have this work published," said Nasser Al-Qattan, a USF geochemistry doctoral graduate who helped analyze the barnacles. "The plane disappeared more than nine years ago, and we all worked aiming to introduce a new approach to help resume the search, suspended in January 2017, which might help bring some closure to the tens of families of those on the missing plane."

The research was published in AGU Advances.

Source: University of South Florida

“ Because the largest barnacles were not available for study…”

As it’s only the largest which gives a clue to the plane’s location - what was the point?
Fascinating article David, and one hopes that this information could prove useful if there are deepwater research vessels in the predicted areas. It is a shame that the debris didn't have the largest barnacle still attached - that might narrow the predictions somewhat - but what a major breakthrough! If the data of the younger barnacles has narrowed the entire Indian Ocean search area down to 1% of the possibilities, then continued searching should yield the debris field. Many asked why search for the Titanic - we all knew it sank in the North Atlantic and it hadn't been found....but some persisted. And narrowed their search down until they found it. That is why we search! And sometimes science can really narrow the odds!
Rustgecko - how very droll. David actually read the article and gave a nice synopsis. His version should have cleared up any question as to "the point". Science doesn't seek to answer questions, proper scientific technique more often RULES OUT questions or possibilities. The plane went down in the Indian Ocean, the pieces recognized as part of the plane were found to have "At least some of the barnacles were attached and growing shortly after the crash." Since many people would like to solve the mystery of where and how the plane went down, they can use science even if YOU don't know the point, to narrow their search from the entire Indian Ocean to correlated barnacle growth temperature bands.. And no, it is not only the largest that gives a clue to the plane's location - the younger the barnacles, the more recent to the finding of the MH370 flaperons is their growth life - and although the oldest may narrow the search down to a few locations - not THE location - the barnacles yield timeline information that can be correlated to a discrete number of possible locations. After all, the Titanic wasn't found because of any point - it remains on the sea bed as a respected tomb - and yet science to narrowed the search parameters until they found the vessels pieces. There really is no point to it. Because "we can" is the point if there is one.
When you hear all the science deniers and conspiracy theorists out there, you just have to wonder if there was an evolutionary benefit to willful ignorance...
Karmudjun, I recall reading that the Titanic was located by accident. That The intended target of the search was a missing U S Navy submarine.
Couldn’t DNA analysis also lead to the barnacle “tribe” of origin thus potential geographic location?
Has anyone thought to ask the people at the US air base at Diego Garcia?
Surely they track any and every aircraft around their base.