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Theories have long speculated about what happened to Amelia Earhart

Did she crash and die? Live as a castaway? Return to America under a new name?

CNN —  

Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean 80 years ago, but those decades have done little to satisfy the appetite of investigators still searching for her true fate.

The latest piece of possible evidence in Earhart’s disappearance came on Wednesday when a History Channel documentary released a newfound photo from the US National Archives of several blurry figures. Investigators claim the photo depicts Earhart, her navigator, Fred Noonan, and her plane on the Marshall Islands after their disappearance.

The theory, explored further in the documentary, argues that Earhart and Noonan crashed near the Marshall Islands, about 1,000 miles away from their intended target of Howland Island, and were captured by the Japanese.

But that theory is dismissed by other Earhart investigators, and it’s just one of a number of possible ideas speculating what happened to Earhart.

Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo and one of the most famous people in the world when she disappeared, has been a continual source of fascination in life and in death.

“I don’t blame people for wanting to know (what happened), and it is one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century because she was so well known,” said Dorothy Cochrane, the curator for the Aeronautics Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

“The world was following her. So it is really someone drops off the face of the earth, naturally everyone wants to know what happens.”

Here’s a look at some of the most prominent of those theories surrounding what happened to Earhart, which range from a fatal crash to a conspiracy that she lived out her days under a new alias in New Jersey.

Crash and sink

Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo.
Staff/AFP/Getty Images
Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo.

As part of her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world, Earhart and Noonan took off in a Lockheed Electra airplane on July 2, 1937, from Lae, New Guinea, intending to reach Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean.

They were in radio contact with the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was just offshore Howland Island. The aviators radioed that they were low on fuel and unable to find the tiny island.

They were never seen again.

Based on those agreed-upon facts, the most basic theory posits that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel, crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Howland and died. That’s the theory officially held by the US government as well as the Smithsonian.

“It’s not the exciting theory. It’s not the attention grabber,” said Cochrane.

The US government spent $4 million searching for Earhart, Noonan and the Electra over about two weeks, at that point the most expensive search in history. Their search of a wide area near Howland Island came up empty.

Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, according to the History Channel.

Died as a castaway

Theorizing from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, argues that Earhart survived a rough landing on a remote atoll in the Pacific but died soon after.

“We believe she died as a castaway,” said TIGHAR board member Richard Gillespie.

The idea is that Earhart and Noonan landed safely on a reef in the ocean, and unsuccessfully attempted to radio for help. The Electra was eventually washed into the ocean by rising tides, leaving the aviators alone on the uninhabited island of Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island, about 350 miles south of Howland Island, TIGHAR claims.

In October 1937, months after Earhart went missing, Colonial Service Cadet Officer Eric Bevington took an image of the shoreline of Gardner Island. TIGHAR claims that a blurry form in that photo may show landing gear components from the Electra.

TIGHAR also claims that a skeleton of a castaway found on the island in 1940, tested decades later, is consistent with a female of Earhart’s height and ethnic origin.

Taken prisoner by the Japanese

Another popular theory is that Earhart and Noonan landed in the Marshall Islands, were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and died in captivity in Saipan.