Scientists Press for New MH370 Search, but Expert Questions Their Findings

A small team in Australia insists this time they really know where the airplane is. But their first prediction came up empty. Are they putting too much hope on one piece of debris?

A small team of scientists is desperately pressing the Australian and Malaysian governments to resume searching for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. For the second time in four months they have insisted that they are now much more certain of where the remains of the Boeing 777 are on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

A search that lasted nearly three years and cost $150 million was abandoned in January after the same oceanographers decided that, all along, they had been looking in the wrong place.

The team of oceanographers, led by Dr. David Griffin of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO, has used debris from MH370 that washed up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean to get what they now believe is a far more accurate fix on where the jet went down. Using a method called drift modeling they reverse-tracked the debris to a point 1,700 miles off the west coast of Australia.

The first search area that turned up empty was huge—46,000 square miles. Dr. Griffin now proposes a new area of 9,700 square miles.

“This does not change our earlier estimate of the probable location of the aircraft,” he said. “It does, however, increase our confidence in that estimate, so we are now even more confident that the aircraft is within the new search area.”

Griffin and his team in Hobart, Tasmania, are placing great importance on the first piece of debris to be found, part of the right wing’s control surfaces called a flaperon recovered from the island of La Reunion near Africa in July 2015.

In their first reverse-tracking of the debris the scientists used replicas they made of a flaperon. The flaperon found on La Reunion was sent to French accident investigators in Paris (La Reunion is French territory) and France did not agree to send it to Australia, insisting that their scientists would provide the Australians with any relevant data.

Late last year the Australians acquired an actual flaperon from a retired Boeing 777 provided by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. After trials in the waters near Hobart using this flaperon, modified to reflect damage from the crash impact, they now say that that it gave them a much more accurate picture of the course taken by the debris as it drifted across the Indian Ocean. (In fact, their calculations matched those made in Paris by the French scientists.)

However, one expert who has reviewed the work of Dr. Griffin’s team believes that they may be putting too much confidence in the debris as a guide to where the airplane is.

Dr. Richard Cole of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College, London closely followed the previous search operation over many months. He told The Daily Beast that he is cautious about whether there is enough data from the debris to reach a more confident assessment of where the wreck was likely to be.

“Statistically the number of debris items is very small,” he said. “For example the final predictions are strongly based on the absence of debris on the Australian coast, but a few pieces could easily have been missed. Would discovery of those have made a difference to the conclusions? I have yet to see any treatment of the drift modeling that uses any real statistical treatment with a proper level of significance, e.g. 99 per cent or better.”

Dr. Cole points out that something that sounds to the public like an optimistic number—for example, that there is a 90 per cent confidence level in proposing a new search area, is statistically not very good.

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“Nobody would cross a road if there was a 10 per cent chance of being hurt,” he said, “and most people wouldn’t make an investment with a 10 per cent chance of failure. Certainly no scientific paper that drew conclusions with this level of significance would be believed.”

The CSIRO team received an enormous amount of help from other scientists around the world, including from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, who provided vital data from a fleet of buoys monitoring ocean currents, and other agencies using satellites to monitor climate. As a result, a remarkably detailed day-by-day history of conditions in the Indian Ocean was constructed, beginning on May 8, 2014, when the airplane vanished.

More than 20 pieces of debris from the 777 were recovered from the southern coastline of mainland Africa as well as Mozambique and other islands in the direct path of currents originating near the western coast of Australia.

In January the Australian Minister of Transport, Darren Chester, speaking on behalf of Australia, Malaysia and China (many of the passengers on Flight MH370 were from China) announced that the largest search in aviation history had been “suspended.”

In a press conference the next day Chester came under pressure to explain why, in view of Dr. Griffin’s team’s new prediction of where the wreck was, the search had not been switched.

“No one is coming to me and saying we know where MH370 is,” Chester replied. He later doubled down and said there would be no consideration of a new search “in the absence of any credible new evidence leading to a specific location of the aircraft.”

No one, certainly not the scientists, is claiming to have reached a specific location. That seems to set a standard that can never be met. When the initial search was launched in 2014 there was nonstop media coverage and worldwide pressure to the find the airplane in which 239 people had been lost. That pressure is now absent. The Australians have made clear that it is the Malaysians who will have to decide whether Dr. Griffin’s work justifies a renewed effort.

That is highly unlikely. “Suspended” is a euphemism. In any event, with the Southern Hemisphere winter approaching no search would now be possible until late this year.