Volcanoes, Wrecks and the MH370 Search

January 31, 2016

They haven’t found the world’s most-famous missing airplane yet, but they have found a deep, dark, and awesome world beneath the Indian Ocean that nobody has seen before.

It turns out that the Australian-led search for the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has brought scientific revelations way beyond its primary purpose—as well as encountering ghosts from another age of seafaring, the victims of storms that must have been as terrifying as any in the narratives of Joseph Conrad.

When the operation to find the Boeing 777 began nearly two years ago few could imagine how formidable the physical challenges would be.

By cruel chance, the fleet assigned to the search faced one of the most remote stretches of ocean in the world, 1,700 miles away from the nearest ports in western Australia, in a trench that was as much as 20,000 feet deep. Moreover, the ocean bed had never been mapped.

Now in their final months, and with about 16,000 square miles of ocean floor left to search, the pressure for a successful result is mounting on searchers. And as it does there are setbacks—like an event on Jan. 24 when a towfish, a torpedo-like sonar device being towed on a cable, collided with a gigantic mud-spewing volcano.

Nearly 15,000 feet of cable broke away as the towfish became trapped on a ridge of the volcano. To show the challenges they face, the Australians released a computer-generated three-dimensional image of the volcano—with the stranded towfish and cable lying across it.

For sure, this volcano is not something you would want to encounter above the water, let alone in the deep. At around 4,900 feet it’s higher than the most notorious volcano in history, Vesuvius (4,200 feet). Even then, its summit is more than 1.3 miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

Bear in mind, though, that those vivid computer-generated colors are there to clearly convey the contours, not the reality. All the images of the ocean floor used in the search are created by sonar, not by cameras with an eye. In reality this monster would be virtually invisible in the dense and scummy darkness of the deep. This science is sightless.

There are more monsters from where this one came.

“Geoscience Australia have identified over 220 individual volcanoes of varying size up to 1,500 meters high and 15 kilometers in diameter,” Dan O’Malley, the spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, told The Daily Beast.

Before the area believed to be the final resting place of Flight 370 could be searched by submersibles, it was mapped by bathymetric sonar, using scanners mounted on a ship’s hull. When the whole 46,000 square mile search field was revealed in relief for the first time the picture was of something that even a movie special effects artist would have thought far-fetched.

At the northern end of the search area was a subterranean mountain range like the Alps that extends far west into the Indian Ocean. In the heart of the search area, as well as the volcanoes, there are deep rift valleys with very steep gradients. Although large parts of the seafloor are relatively flat, they are covered in a deep layer of silt that shifts around in currents.

“Conditions on the sea floor can make piloting the towfish a complex and difficult task,” says O’Malley.

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