After nearly a decade of unsuccessful searches for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, researchers and marine experts are refocusing their efforts thanks to the help of barnacles. Barnacles have been found all over pieces of wreckage that have washed up across Reunion, Madagascar, and Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline, potentially providing some clues towards the final resting place of the Boeing 777.
Research published in August in the American Geophysical Union’s AGU Advances journal offers some insight. It uses a unique method of comparing the shell chemistry of barnacles found on confirmed pieces of debris to dated sea surface temperatures to retrace its path. The AGU’s methodology has already identified a drift path for the piece of flaperon discovered on Reunion Island in 2015 – and if research methods are correct, the drift pattern is purported to be significantly further south than initially predicted.
Barnacles reside in warm waters worldwide as small larvae, eventually latching onto partially submersed objects, like boats or flotsam, and gradually building a hard shell.
Photo: AGU Advances
Barnacles and other similarly shelled sea creatures grow their shells daily, creating tree-ring-like layers of calcium carbonate and minerals, giving researchers a deeper picture of things like temperatures they’ve experienced, oxygen ratios, and water conditions. Speaking to Bloomberg, research co-author and associate professor at the University of South Florida Gregory Herbert outlined the group’s research methodology,
“The flaperon was covered in barnacles and as soon as I saw that, I immediately began sending emails to the search investigators because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash location.”
Future research plans
Several years in the making, the research of Herbert and his co-authors builds on previous work by Dr. Joseph Poupin published in 2015, highlighting the species, sizes, and growth of barnacles on the same piece of flaperon, as well as isotope modeling from an unpublished report by French Dominique Blamart and Franck Bassinot.
Further research could be likely, with the research team having yet to study other barnacle samples found on pieces of MH370 debris, with Herbert remaining optimistic about the research’s potential to aid in future searches for the jet,
“Sadly, the largest and oldest barnacles have not yet been made available for research, but with this study, we’ve proven this method can be applied to a barnacle that colonized on the debris shortly after the crash to reconstruct a complete drift path back to the crash origin.”
MH370 disappeared in March 2014, with subsequent searches racking up hefty price tags but with limited results. Over 1,700,000 square miles of the Southern Indian Ocean’s surface has been searched over the past nine years by a range of nations, including China, Malaysia, and Australia, eventually shifting underwater before ending in May 2018.
Researchers, politicians, scientists, and conspiracy theorists have offered a range of explanations for the aircraft’s disappearance, as well as its final resting place. However, no definitive answer has been found.