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Opinion
Adam Minter

Flotsam and False Leads in Flight 370 Search

One of the few facts we've learned for certain from the international search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is that the South China Sea is very, very polluted.
Searchers in the South China Sea have found diesel oil and other pollution but not Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Source: Malaysian Maritime Agency via Getty Images
Searchers in the South China Sea have found diesel oil and other pollution but not Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Source: Malaysian Maritime Agency via Getty Images

One of the few facts we've learned for certain from the international search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is that the South China Sea is very, very polluted. The disappearance is, above all else, a human tragedy for the families of the passengers and crew, and the state of the sea should in no way distract from the efforts to find them. Nonetheless, the ecological tragedy will have a profound impact on the South China Sea -- and the more than 1 billion people living in its coastal areas -- in coming decades.

On Saturday, hours after the first news of the plane's disappearance, the Vietnamese navy reported finding 6 mile (9.7 kilometers) and 9 mile oil slicks (reports about the size vary), raising hopes. On Monday, lab tests revealed that they were diesel fuel characteristic of the ships that ply, and pollute, the South China Sea. In the days since, fishermen and rescue workers have found life rafts, life jackets, a jet's door and plastic oil barrels each initially suspected as originating from Flight 370, vetted in the news media, and then -- perhaps literally -- tossed overboard as trash.