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UH computer model might explain debris drift from Malaysia Airlines crash

August 4, 2015 - 11:39am
This story’s headline has been corrected to reflect the correct school.
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As investigators continue the search for clues in the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a University of Hawaii team believes it may have an accurate model of how debris from the plane’s crash more than a year ago may have reached the shore of Reunion island in the Indian Ocean.

The discovery last month of a wing fragment from a Boeing 777 on the island kicked off a flurry of renewed interest, with French and Malaysian aviation officials meeting in Paris on Monday to coordinate their continued efforts to discover what happened to the plane, which disappeared without a trace on March 8, 2014.

Oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko and scientific computer programmer Jan Hafner, with the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC), have spent much of the past four years focusing their efforts on tracking and predicting the movement of floating debris from the 20111 Japan tsunami using their Marine Debris Model.

Combining data on ocean surface currents, wind, gravity and more, the pair fashioned software that could map out the dispersion and likely pathways that the debris could take as it moved across the Pacific Ocean. More than four years later, that model has proven itself to be highly accurate, with debris arriving in Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast at the times predicted by the model.

Additionally, in February 2014, the IPRC announced it had used the model to track the path followed by Mexican fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga, who survived 13 months adrift at sea after his fishing vessel became disabled. Many believed the man’s story might have been a hoax, but the UH scientists showed that his tale of survival and eventual arrival in the Marshall Islands followed computer models of the path a floating object would have taken.

Now, the pair has applied the computer modeling techniques to the likely paths that debris from the Malaysian airliner would have taken from the area where investigators believe it crashed into the Indian Ocean.

An animated graphic made available on Monday shows a multitude of possible tracks debris could have taken, based on various objects’ “windage.” A relatively new addition to the model, windage is a measurement of the effects that an object floating above the water line can have on its movement in the ocean. If an object is relatively buoyant, with much of its mass protruding above the water line, it can catch the wind, pushing it in a direction different from that being dictated by ocean surface currents.

While many scientists are studying the movement of objects in oceans, Maximenko said, it is this inclusion of windage that makes his model more accurate.

“One of the important parameters that people are missing in their models is windage,” he said. “This is a very important parameter. This is why different objects are moving differently.”

Maximenko said he’d like the opportunity to speak with and work with the investigators as they search for the missing plane, in the hopes of improving upon his model using the latest data, while providing new information that investigators may not already have.

“One opportunity I think that’s being missed as we speak, I read that they are sending this flaperon (the wing fragment found in Reunion) to France,” Maximenko said Friday. “If I was there, the first thing I would do, I would drop this flaperon back in the water and I would see how it floats in water. Do it before emptying the sea water inside. Use all possibilities to estimate the windage. … Ideally, I would attach a small satellite transmitter and follow the drift of this flaperon … for maybe a week.”

By combining real-world data on the windage effects of a specific item with real-time data on wind patterns, surface currents and more, a detailed picture of where the flaperon came from could be created, he said, ultimately narrowing down the possible locations where the plane entered the water when it crashed.

Without that specific data, the scientists have produced an animation with multiple colors, representing different items with different windage coefficients. It’s important to note, he said, that while the animation shows a large cloud spreading across the Indian Ocean, this cloud merely represents probabilities of debris being in those locations.

Email Colin M. Stewart at

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