Barnacles may help reveal the location of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

University of South Florida Scientist: Barnacles may help reveal the location of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

The buoy used to collect barnacles to conduct the growth experiment for this study. Credit: Gregory Herbert/University of South Florida

A University of South Florida geologist has led an international team of researchers to create a new method that can reconstruct the drift trajectory and the origin of debris from Flight MH370, the plane that went missing over the Indian Ocean in 2014 with 239 people on board.

Associate Professor Gregory Herbert was inspired by the moment he saw images of plane wreckage that washed up on Reunion Island off the coast of Africa a year after it crashed.

“The fin was covered in barnacles, and as soon as I saw that, I immediately started sending emails to the research investigators because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash site,” Herbert said.

As an evolutionary and conservation biologist, Herbert studies marine systems with a particular focus on shelled marine invertebrates, such as clams, clams, and barnacles. Over the past two decades, Herbert and Refine have devised a method for extracting ocean temperatures stored in the chemistry of invertebrate shells. Herbert had previously used this method to determine the ages and extinction risks of giant horse clams and to investigate the environmental conditions surrounding the disappearance of the clams. Jamestown Colony.

The shells of barnacles and other shelled marine invertebrates grow daily, producing inner layers that resemble tree rings. The chemistry of each layer is determined by the temperature of the water surrounding it at the time of layer formation.

In this study published in AGU predecessorHerbert’s research team conducted a growing experiment with live barnacles to read their chemistry and, for the first time, unlocked temperature records from barnacle shells.

This video depicts the path of debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean based on partial drift simulations performed with barnacles. Credit: Gregory Herbert/University of South Florida

After the experiment, they applied the successful method to the young barnacles of MH370. With the help of barnacle experts and oceanographers at the National University of Ireland Galway, they combined the barnacles’ water temperature records with oceanographic modeling and succeeded in reconstructing the partial drift.

“Unfortunately, the largest and oldest barnacles have not yet been made available for research, but with this study, we have demonstrated that this method can be applied to barnacles that colonized the debris shortly after the collision to reconstruct a complete drift trajectory back to the origin of the accident,” Herbert said.

Up to this point, the search for MH370 has spanned several thousand miles along the north-south corridor known as the “seventh arc,” where investigators believe the plane may have skidded after running out of fuel. Because ocean temperatures can change rapidly along an arc, Herbert says this method can accurately reveal where an aircraft is.

“French scientist Joseph Bobin, who was one of the first biologists to examine the fin, concluded that the larger attached barnacles were probably old enough to colonize the debris very soon after the crash and very close to the actual crash site where the plane was now,” Herbert said. “If so, the temperatures recorded in those shells could help investigators narrow their search.”

University of South Florida Scientist: Barnacles may help reveal the location of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

Barnacles are grown in a controlled environment as part of the study’s growth experiment. Credit: University of South Florida

Even if the plane isn’t over the arc, Herbert says studying the oldest and largest barnacles can still narrow down their search areas in the Indian Ocean.

“Knowing the tragic story behind the mystery motivated everyone involved in this project to get the data and publish this work,” said Nassar Al-Qattan, a PhD graduate in geochemistry at the University of South Florida who helped analyze the geochemistry of the barnacles.

“The plane disappeared more than nine years ago, and we have all worked with the goal of introducing a new approach to help restart the search, which was suspended in January 2017, which could help bring closure to the dozens of families of those on board the missing plane.”

This research was conducted in collaboration with Ran Tao, a geospatial scientist at the University of South Florida; Howard Spiro, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Davis; and barnacles experts and oceanographers Sean McCarthy, Ryan McGeady and Anne-Marie Power at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

more information:
Nasser Al-Qattan et al., Stable-isotope-based forensic method for reconstructing debris drift trajectories with application to the MH370 crash, AGU predecessor (2023). doi: 10.1029/2023AV000915

Provided by the University of South Florida

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