WASHINGTON, April 1, 2014 — The search and investigation into Malaysian flight 370 is encountering multiple difficulties, making it likely that it will take years to solve the mystery.
Over the last four weeks, search airplanes looking for debris from flight 370 have repeatedly spotted what looks like a promising lead only to eventually discover it is, literally, garbage.
Many have been surprised by the reports of the Great Pacific garbage patches or Pacific trash vortex that plague this area of the seas.
How did our waters become such a dump?
The oceans have container ships that run daily across the waters and they dump tens of thousands of shipping containers overboard each year, typically during storms.
This leads to the possibility of 10 to 20 thousand pieces of debris per square mile floating around.
When the containers wash overboard, not only does the ocean receive a 70 foot piece of garbage but also everything that was housed inside that container. This can include any number if things ranging from lighters, bottles and cans to fishing nets or shoes.
In addition to the garbage created by the container ships, large populations on the coasts of the oceans create their own garbage. They often do not dispose of trash properly, and it instead ends up in the waterways and through the subtropical gyers.
Eventually, this garbage also makes its way to the center of the ocean.
Since plastics are designed to last, it can take tens to hundreds of years for dumped plastic debris to biodegrade. Plastic fishing nets, pellets and containers will last for a very long time churning in the center of the gyer.
These gyers are strong currents in these regions that act similar to a whirlpool, carrying the trash into the center of the gyer.
There are a few of these gyer currents in the world, and one happens to be in the south Indian Ocean where the missing Malaysian airplane is thought to have disappeared.
These large rotating vortexes grab the floating garbage across the area and move it into the calm center of these currents.
Despite the daily spotting of garbage and debris by search pilots, most of the floating trash would not be able to be seen from the skies as the plastic has been broken down into small pieces by the currents.
Most of today’s plastics will not break down as paper or wood does. As plastic ages, the sun’s heat and light will break it into smaller and smaller pieces but it will not disappear.
These small pieces of plastic create a problem for sea life because they are often confused as plankton or fish eggs.
Necropsy’s have been performed on sea birds and dolphins who have died under mysterious circumstances and it was determined that they died of starvation because their stomachs were full of plastic pieces that the animals were unable to digest.
Sea trash is not the only difficulty search crews are encountering in the hunt for the missing airline.
The south Indian Ocean has been called the roughest waters in the world. In winter, which is the current season in the southern hemisphere, it is considered the worst place in the world to be with high winds, unpredictable weather and wild seas, even for large ships.
The area of the search between 40 and 50 degrees latitude in the southern hemisphere is referred to as the Roaring Forties for a reason. It is where the warm subtropics meet the polar vortex coming from the South Pole which creates extreme weather instability.
In addition to picking through a plastic soup of ocean garbage and battling waves of 25 feet, on a calm day, the search area is massive.
The Indian Ocean spans an area of 28.4 million square miles with a depth in some area over 3 miles down. Much of the electronic equipment being deployed to detect the ping of the black box will need to come within a mile of the plane to be detected.
The latest small search area is the size of Kentucky.
After four weeks, not only has the splash zone not been discovered, not a single piece of evidence has been found.
Ironically, these difficult conditions could assist the search.
The strong winds will create foam lines. Along with the current gyer, these foam lines could be where debris belonging to the missing plane ultimately will be discovered.
It took recovery crews two years to retrieve Air France 447, and that crash site was located in five days.