Undersea volcanoes could complicate MH370 wreckage retrieval, geologist warns

The Malaysian Insider
March 26, 2014

The recovery of MH370 and its black box is going to be an extremely difficult task as geologists believe the debris from the Malaysian Airlines aircraft could be lying above a giant undersea chain of volcanoes whose complex terrain has barely been charted, reported The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).

To make matters worse, the only Australian vessel capable of charting depths of 3,000 metres, the RV Southern Surveyor, had been decommissioned in December, the daily said.

Robin Beaman, a marine geologist from James Cook University, told SMH that so little of the southern Indian Ocean sea floor, including the search zone, had been mapped in detail that any attempt to retrieve the wreckage would require extensive 3D mapping, possibly by ships with multibeam echo sounders.

“It’s bad timing really. Australia has no capability of mapping these depths,” he was quoted by SMH as saying.

Multibeam echo sounders send out sound pulses in the shape of a fan, returning depths of the sea floor directly under the ship and on either side, a pattern known as a swath.

Beaman said at the moment, the RV Southern Surveyor’s replacement in Singapore waiting to undergo sea trials.

He told SMH that the first piece of debris spotted by DigitalGlobe satellites on March 16 was located about 60 kilometres southwest of the active zone of the Southeast Indian Ridge, a chain of underwater volcanoes that ran from the southwest of Australia to below New Zealand.

Another object sighted by a Chinese aircraft was about 180 kilometres southwest of the ridge, while the suspected debris picked up by an Australian aircraft on Monday was spotted about 200 kilometres to the northeast of the ridge, he said.

“On the flanks of the ridge, which is very likely where any crash zone would be, there has been virtually no mapping apart from the odd strip,” he told SMH.

As such, he said it would be difficult to spot any debris without good charts and remote-operated underwater vessels due to the complex terrain of the ridgeline which has peaks tens of metres tall.

The area was last mapped almost 20 years ago using outdated technology.

These surveys charted several areas about 70 kilometres wide and research ships gathered detail on the sea floor as they sailed from one port to another, but the paths they charted were only about 10 kilometres to 20 kilometres wide, the SMH report said.

“It’ll be very unlikely that debris has fallen in those little 10 to 20-kilometre wide zones,” Beaman said.

The search for MH370 is now focused on the retrieval of the plane’s wreckage and black box to help investigators unravel the mystery of the plane’s disappearance, now entering day 19.

Satellite data analysis by Britain’s Inmarsat confirmed to Malaysian authorities that the plane had crashed in the Indian Ocean, as announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on Monday.

It was revealed yesterday that a final electronic signal from the plane was received at 8.19am (Malaysian time) on March 8.

“There is evidence of a partial handshake between the aircraft and ground station at 0019 UTC (GMT),” acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told the press yesterday.

“At this time, this transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work,” he said, adding that unless debris is found, there could be no closure for the affected families.

Yesterday, some 200 distraught relatives and family members of MH370’s Chinese passengers attempted to march towards the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, clashing with police and shouting slogans condemning the Malaysian government as “murderers”.

Beijing has at the same time demanded that Putrajaya hand over the satellite data which led it to conclude that the flight had crashed. – March 26, 2014.

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