Missing Malaysia flight MH370: Search will be affected by climate change, say scientists

The turbulent currents and strong winds in the search area caused by manmade global warming, with only make the search more difficult.

Kashmira Gander
Monday 24 March 2014 12:45
Indonesian search and rescue workers survey high seas as part of the search mission
Indonesian search and rescue workers survey high seas as part of the search mission

The effects of climate change will have hampered efforts to find Mayalsian Airlines flight MH370, which, along with its 239 passengers and crew, has been missing since 8 March, according to climate change scientists.

Data modelers, who have been tasked with mapping regional air and water currents to help crews scour the 8,800 square miles of ocean that constitute the search area, will be slowed by turbulent conditions, warn experts.

Over a 20 to 30 year period, the winds off the Southern Indian Ocean bordering the Southern Ocean have shifted southwards and intensified.

This change is partly due to a combination of the atmosphere warming, a hole in the ozone layer, and currents tightening around Antarctica which have caused climate systems to shift towards the South Pole, Steven Rintoul, an expert on the southern oceans with Australia's foremost scientific research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in Hobart, told the website Mother Jones.

He explained that potential plane debris that has been spotted by crews via satellite could be sandwich between the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which moves across the bottom of the southern hemisphere, and the Indian Ocean Gyre, which acts around the outskirts of the Indian Ocean.

“Both of those currents are shifting south,” he said, adding: “ And it looks like that's largely due to human activities, but not just greenhouse gases. Both the ozone hole and greenhouse gases are working together to change the winds over the Southern Ocean.”

“Over the 20 years, since 1993, we've seen the current shift southward by about half a degree of latitude, or about 30 or 40 miles or so, on average,” Rintoul added, meaning the rapidly changing area is unpredictable and difficult to understand.

While it was previously thought that these mega-currents were locked into the trenches and mountains of the deep sea floor, said Rintoul, “it was a surprise to see them shifting at all. In some regions the shifts are much greater, up to 400 miles.”

“We have seen changes in the last few years that even 5 or 10 years ago we would have thought highly unlikely.”

Joellen Russell, an associate professor in biogeochemical dynamics at the University of Arizona, who has explored and studied the southern oceans, told Mother Jones that ocean currents in this region are extremely powerful.

"This is where you see the lungs of the ocean working, where you get oxygen in, and you bring up carbon-rich and nutrient rich waters to the surface. It's what makes it so productive," said Russel.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current transports 130 million cubic meters of water per second eastwards. The next most powerful current, the Gulf Stream, carries around 40 million per second, she added.

A combination of the water column in this area being exceptionally deep, at 1.2 to 2.5 miles, and consistently cold, sees heat from manmade climate change easily absorbed.

A woman leaves a messages of support and hope for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 in central Kuala Lumpur

"The Southern Ocean takes up something like 70 percent—plus or minus 30 percent—of all the anthropogenic heat that goes under the ocean," said Russell.

"This is one of the few areas of the global ocean that is immediately and definitely playing a role in the temperature on land, because it's taking up all this anthropogenic heat and carbon. The whole ocean is doing that, but here it's doing it more than it ought to."

She continued, the extremes apparent in the southern oceans, make studying it difficult, dangerous and expensive.

"When things happen in the Indian [Ocean], we find out a how little infrastructure we actually have in place," Russell warned, adding that everything from which boats can be deployed and what data can be used to monitor the oceans is affected.

The "miserable winds" and "huge enormous, towering seas", and driving currents underwater mean:"Mother nature can crush your boat like a beer can."

An outcome bad for science, and also a concern for any ongoing search efforts, said Russell.

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