There’s little chance that wreckage found in the Indian Ocean will reveal the final resting place of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
That’s a lesson learned by researchers who studied the 2011 tsunami in Japan, which sent flotsam to venues as far apart as Southeast Asia, Alaska and Mexico. Their conclusion: It’s almost impossible to work out where an object entered the water from the location of its eventual recovery.
The discovery of part of an aircraft wing Wednesday on Reunion Island gave MH370 investigators a potential break after 16 months of fruitless scouring. While the discovery might offer clues to the condition of the plane when it vanished with 239 people on board, it’s likely to be of scant value in pinpointing a new search zone for the Boeing Co. 777.
“Currents can go in different directions even in a small area,” said Nir Barnea, west coast regional coordinator for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine-debris program. “Two items that enter the ocean at the same time in the same place can diverge more and more until they end up in completely different places.”
Reunion, which is French soil, is about 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) northwest of the search region off the Australian coast that has been a focus since the weeks after the jet disappeared. Australia has been leading a hunt for the plane that has included patrol aircraft, surface ships and robot submarines with special sonar.
Japan’s magnitude-9 earthquake on March 11, 2011, was instructive in showing the power and vagaries of ocean currents.
The first debris from the tsunami that followed the temblor began washing up near the end of that year and in early 2012. Other wreckage is still arriving and more remains at sea, with landfall still years off, Barnea said by phone from Seattle.
A 30-foot boat found in April was one of the most recent items of tsunami debris to make its way to the U.S. Biologists in Oregon were able to pinpoint its origin after identifying several species of fish trapped in the hull as originating only in Japanese coastal waters.
An estimated 5 million tons (4.5 million metric tons) of debris was sucked into the ocean as the tsunami retreated, with about 30 percent floating away from land and dispersing, according to the NOAA.
Debris that rides high in the water, suffering less drag and being blown along more easily, tends to travel fastest, Barnea said. Items that are heavier but still too buoyant to sink will take months to travel even a short distance.
A part number on the wing section found in Reunion confirms that it came from a Boeing 777, though investigators haven’t determined whether the piece is from MH370, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
David Learmount, a former pilot and air-safety editor of trade publication Flight Global, said on a blog post that he’s not expecting this week’s discovery to herald a breakthrough.
Tracing the jet component to its possible origin based on currents and wind “would provide such a massive approximation that it would indicate a larger search area than the one the Australian government has already searched,” Learmount said.