Long search for wreckage is necessary

The news coverage of the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has quieted down a bit.

It had to because the search is likely going to be long, monotonous, and tedious with no guarantee of success. Which means it’ll no longer be “exciting” (poor term) enough for continuous coverage in a “24/7” news cycle. Therefore, what we’ll now see are “updates” as the searchers quietly ply their trade.

Currently, the best guess is that the airliner may be in an area of the Indian Ocean known as the Zenith Plateau.

Wikipedia notes that this area “has not been studied in any detail and its internal structure and origin has largely been a matter of speculation and indirect inference…”

Translated, this means that we don’t know much about the area and that most nautical charts are based on single ping soundings made by vessels that may have transited the area over the years. Basically, we know more about the topography of the moon than we do about the ocean bottom there.

The good thing, though, is that marine scientists think that the possible crash site is covered in sediments that have been settling to the bottom for tens of thousands of years. In which case, the wreckage — if the area where the airliner came to rest is relatively flat — should stand out from its surroundings.

Still, you can’t search a place that large very quickly. One reason is that one method used to map or search such an area — should current efforts using the autonomous Bluefin-21 submersible prove unsuccessful — is what’s known as “mowing the lawn.”

That’s where a search box that might range from 20 to 30 nautical miles in length and, perhaps, 10 to 15 nautical miles in width is set up. Then, to completely cover the area, a ship would tow its instruments back and forth over the site. The time required to “finish” the box would depend on the “swath” the instrument could cover in one pass and the speed at which it was being towed — in many cases, around four knots.

Knowing the width of the swath, the search box would be divided into lanes that ensured some overlap, a whole host of variables including weather would be factored in, a starting point set at one corner of the box, and the ship would begin “mowing the lawn.” If nothing of interest was found in the first box, another one would be established adjacent to the first.

As noted, all of this takes a lot of time. Covering a single 30-nautical mile line at four knots takes almost eight hours. Add another hour or so to turn the ship around, get everything and everybody on the same page, check all of the equipment, and proceed onto the next pass.

Too, added into the equation, would be the hours required to deploy and retrieve the equipment which is usually at the end of thousands of meters of cable that all has to be reeled in or paid out. This is a recurring process as batteries need to be replaced, maintenance may need to be performed, and equipment may either break down or, even, be lost.

On that last, there’s an old nautical formula regarding putting gear over the side and sending it down to abyssal depths. It goes like this: “If ‘n’ is the number of times you put something in the water, then “n – 1” is the number of times you’ll get it back.” You just never know the value of “n.”

Ultimately, the search will likely continue for as long as the governments involved decide that it should continue. Ships, aircraft, and deep ocean instruments aren’t inexpensive to operate and the costs will be huge.

Still, I hope that it will last for however long it takes to find the wreckage. The families of the deceased deserve to know the final resting place of their loved ones. Too, retrieving the “black boxes” might shine some light on what happened onboard that airliner and allow us to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Further, we humans simply don’t like mysteries.

And finding answers is part of our nature — especially where loved ones are involved.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to: larrysim@comcast.net

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