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How can ocean currents help with finding a missing plane? (April, 2014)

Date: 
Friday, April 4, 2014

After the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 there was an immediate search to try to find the plane.   When satellite images showed that debris was found at multiple locations in the Southern Ocean, over a thousand miles from the southwest coast of Australia, many questions arose about how to track such debris.  Where did it come from? Where is it going? To aid in the quandary of debris movement, ocean currents were used.  Ocean Surface Current Analyses Real-time (OSCAR), generated by Dr. Kathleen Dohan at Earth and Space Research (ESR), are ocean currents derived from multiple satellite measurements, such as the Jason-2/Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM), QuikSCAT, AVHRR, and others.  OSCAR illustrates the large-scale motion of the ocean in addition to flow instabilities such as eddies (Figure 1).  In the Southern Ocean, OSCAR shows a strong eastward current otherwise known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) (Figure 1), as well as eddies due to flow instabilities in the ACC.  The ACC could transport the debris to the east, while eddies could spin the debris in a circular pattern (counterclockwise and/or clockwise rotation) and slowly drift westward or eastward, depending on the rotation of the eddy.

 

Figure 1.OSCAR ocean surface currents (m/s) on a) 23 March 2014 and b) 28 March 2014. The pink dot denotes the center of the search area on 27 March 2014 and the white dot denotes the center of the search area on 31 March 2014.

 

To provide more information on how ocean currents can help determine transportation of the debris, Dr. Dohan was interviewed on several news outlets.

 

For more information on OSCAR please visit the PO.DAAC 'OSCAR third degree resolution ocean surface currents' Dataset Information Page.

The latest currents from OSCAR can be viewed on SOTO (State of the Ocean) visualization tool.

PO.DAAC Science Team,
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.