Months after its disappearance, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is still making headlines. This time, though, it is for a different reason—ocean awareness.
The harried search for any debris from the plane, which disappeared without a trace on March 8 on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, has kept America and other nations on their toes.
Many reactions have resulted from this modern catastrophe: fear of the unknown and the possibility that a plane crash could happen to anyone; anger at the people who may have let this happen; hope for the enduring search and sorrow for those who were lost.
Yet a growing awareness of the enormity of the ocean and all of its features (currents, formations on the ocean floor, undersea volcanoes, sea mounts—all the marvelous unknowns waiting to be discovered and studied at dangerous depths) have also become more relevant.
In the search for debris across miles of ocean, people have once again stumbled upon one of the five gyres (whirlpools formed from currents, wind and the Earth’s rotation) of trash in the world’s oceans. Two are in the Pacific Ocean, two are in the Atlantic Ocean and one is in the Indian Ocean.
The gyre in question, containing the Indian Ocean garbage patch, is not the largest of the five. That distinction goes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Situated about halfway between Hawaii and California and approximately the size of the state of Texas (around 268,820 square miles), this gyre was discovered in 1999. However, its formation was predicted by scientists in the 1970s.
The Indian Ocean garbage patch is a newer discovery. First documented in 2010 by Marcus Eriksen, founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, the gyre is in a remote area of the ocean between Australia and Madagascar.
Searching for plane debris in this area is proving difficult, as the gyre is known to contain millions of pieces of trash accumulated over the course of decades.
In a National Geographic article on the subject, writer-editor Laura Parker states, “If the Malaysian Boeing 777 crashed into the zone off the west coast of Australia where searchers are now looking, and if some of that debris remains undiscovered, it is already on its journey west toward Madagascar to join the rest of the junk in the Indian Ocean garbage patch, arriving in about a year.”
The tragedy of the missing plane has brought awareness to the fact that we’ve explored less than five percent of the world’s oceans. Simply put, we don’t know what kinds of discoveries the seven seas hold.
The Bluefin-21, a U.S. Navy autonomous underwater vehicle employed in the search for the debris, is mapping a section of the ocean floor that has never been explored before, and there are miles and miles of ocean floor just like it. In fact, the approximately 23,200 square miles of seabed in question could take up to a year to search. If this mysterious calamity has brought us anything, it is an increasing consciousness of the immensity and magnitude of the planet we inhabit.
Scientists are saying that things need to change if we want to prevent something like this from happening again. According to oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko, “There is an analogy between [the Great Pacific Garbage Patch] and the Malaysian plane. In both cases, we were not able to find anything identifiable on satellite images. We do not have an observation system to track individual objects. This system needs to be built.”
People are jumping at every possible lead, though each has turned out to be fruitless. The search has been going on for over two months now, covering thousands of miles, and still nothing has been found. Some family members of those on the missing flight refuse to give up hope that their loved ones are still alive, though chances are slim after all these months. The only thing left for them to do now is wait.