What happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and will we ever find it? Watch “Vanished: The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370” Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
The search for Flight 370 is entering its seventh month
Part of the challenge is how little we know about the ocean floor
"The deep ocean is the least explored part of the planet," professor says
She says we have only seen about 1% of the ocean floor
Weeks after the search for a Malaysian plane carrying 239 people began, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced to the world that, based on satellite data, Flight 370 “ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
Seven months after the plane took off, there is no trace of it or any of the passengers.
The vessel GO Phoenix began the latest phase of the search far off the Western coast of Australia this week.
In preparation, ships surveyed tens of thousands of square miles of the bottom of the ocean where the plane is believed to have gone down, narrowing the primary search area to an arc about 23,000 square miles (60,000 square kilometers) in size, roughly the size of West Virginia.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency leading the expedition, has said “the complexities surrounding the search cannot be understated.”
The bureau reported extinct volcanoes, immense ridges and cavernous trenches have been discovered on the seabed by experts mapping the underwater terrain with state-of-the-art equipment. The mapping was necessary because the depth and seafloor terrain of this area of ocean was largely unknown before the search for the plane drew attention to it.
The deep ocean, what scientists call the sea 650 feet (200 meters) or more underwater, makes up 90% of the habitable volume of the planet, and we don’t know much about it.
In fact, in many ways, we know more about the moon than we know about the ocean floor.
“We’ve seen so little, we’ve explored and sampled so little of the sea floor,” says Dr. Lisa Levin, a professor and researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. “Searching for this plane is a pretty good example of that.”
While it is often said that about 5% of the ocean floor has been mapped, we’ve actually only seen less than 1%, Levin says.
The Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is 35,758 feet (10,908 meters) below sea level, the deepest known point in the ocean. Though fish can only survive up to about 26,900 feet (8,200 meters) under water, sea cucumbers, jellyfish and many species of microbacterial organisms thrive at this level.
Levin’s colleague, Dr. Jules Jaffe, an oceanographer with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says one reason we know so little about the deep ocean is because it is so hard to get to. Scientists and explorers face technological challenges in robotics, imaging and structural engineering.
When it comes to exploring the deep ocean (or finding a missing plane in it) the first problem is the vastness of the sea, he says.
“It’s like an ant in a football field,” Jaffe says. “It’s just a different way of thinking underwater. People think on land how they can see 100 miles. In the deep ocean, if you can see 100 feet you’re doing pretty good.”
Making machines that can actually get to the bottom of the ocean presents a different set of challenges.
For each 33 feet of depth in the ocean, the pressure goes up one atmosphere, the unit of pressure.
“Think about the weight of all the water sitting on top of you,” Jaffe says.
To withstand the pressure, vehicles, machines and instruments meant for the deep ocean must be lightweight but strong. Because it has the least bend for its weight, titanium is the most commonly used material, Jaffe says. Also, flat surfaces are a problem deep underwater, because the pressure will bend and deform the surface, so most underwater gadgets are round or curved.
The deep ocean is far more heterogeneous than scientists thought. Like life on land, there is a variety of geological features and ecosystems teeming with biodiversity, Levin says. These various sea creatures and microbial organisms have the potential to provide us with a wealth of new information and lead us to more and more discoveries.
In medicine, the biology of the ocean has led to advances in research on blindness by looking at the eyes of skates and stingrays. Horseshoe crabs were used to develop a test for bacterial contamination, and structural bone grafts are being modeled after deep sea coral, which has similar density as human bone – just to name a few.
In addition, new biomaterials are being created, such as fiber optics developed from sea sponge fibers. Minerals, new compounds and microbials are released from rock formation “chimneys” that reach deep into the Earth. Some may have industrial uses we haven’t discovered, while others are used for energy as gas and hydrothermal sources.
Not to mention there are also a bunch of really crazy creatures that can glow with bioluminescence, breathe methane, or just look out of this world.
“The deep ocean is the least explored part of the planet,” says Levin. She points out that unlike the moon or stars, people can’t see the bottom of the ocean or stare out and imagine what’s there. “It’s out of sight. People don’t see it, so they don’t think about it,” she says.
Both Jaffe and Levin say it is important to continue to explore and understand the deep ocean. Our knowledge and stewardship for the deep ocean is critical to the health of the planet and human well-being, says Levin. For Jaffe, it is a matter of encouraging innovation and the next generation of explorers.
“People are excited about exploration, but as communication gets faster, it’s easier for people to think we already know everything, but when we’re talking to young people about getting involved in science and engineering, we tell them, ‘We don’t know squat!,’ ” he says, “There’s so much to know, and it’s right here in our backyard.”
And when an airliner goes missing in the vast ocean, how little we know about so much of the Earth becomes clear.