The missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared from radar screens in 2014, may have crashed into the ocean substantially north of where most searches have been conducted, a new mathematical analysis predicts.
Researchers led by Philippe Miron from University of Miami, US, used a complex mathematical approach known as a Markov chain model to analyse the behaviour of items floating on the sea to better pinpoint where the doomed aircraft – which was carrying 239 passengers – entered the Indian Ocean.
A Markov chain model predicts the behaviour of complicated systems by determining the probability of each outcome in relation to its current state. Crucially, any given movement of an object within a Markov chain is assumed to be independent of the movement immediately before it.
To make their analysis, Miron and colleagues were able to use real-world data describing the movement of items on water. They accessed the information contained within the Global Drifter Program – a project run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that uses satellite monitoring to track the progress of hundreds of ocean buoys drifting in every major ocean.
The researchers plotted the known positions of the buoys across a grid of 3000 virtual squares, on the assumption that their movements – governed not just by ocean currents, but also by wind, waves and local turbulence – were generally analogous to those of the floating debris that presumably formed when MH370 hit the surface.
One immediate issue challenging the hypothesis, however, is the stark fact that to date, despite the expenditure of more than $150 million on many expeditions, very few remnants have been found.
“Surprisingly, after more than three years, there is only a handful of confirmed debris recovered from the airplane,” concedes Miron. “This increases the errors of the model.”
After crunching the Markov chain numbers – and correcting for the disturbances represented by Indian Ocean monsoons – the researchers concluded that the missing plane is most likely somewhere along an arc extending between 33 and 17 degrees south latitude – an area thus far little scrutinised.
Whether the findings are firm enough to prompt a new search remains to be seen.
The study is published in the journal Chaos.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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