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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
MH370 search back on as weather improves
by Staff Writers
Perth, Australia (AFP) March 26, 2014


Undersea volcanoes, huge seas complicate MH370 search
Sydney (AFP) March 26, 2014 - Searchers racing to find flight MH370's "black box" face daunting hurdles ranging from undersea volcanoes to mountainous seas as they operate in one of Earth's most remote locations, experts said Wednesday.

They warned there was no guarantee that an unprecedented international search operation involving the militaries of six nations would succeed in retrieving wreckage of the doomed Malaysian Airlines plane which disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday said the search zone -- in the southern Indian Ocean some 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth -- was "as close to nowhere as it's possible to be".

University of New South Wales oceanographer Erik van Sebille said the crash site was in an area known as "the Roaring Forties", notorious among mariners for its hostile seas.

"In general, this is the windiest and waviest part of the ocean," he said. "In winter, if a storm passes by you can expect waves of 10-15 metres."

The Soufan Group, a US-based strategic security intelligence consultancy, likened searching for debris in such conditions to "finding a drifting needle in a chaotic, colour-changing, perception-shifting, motion-sickness-inducing haystack".

"A random wave might obscure the object when the eyes pass over it; sun glare off the water may blind momentarily; a look two degrees to the left when the object is most visible may cause the moment to pass," it said.

Even if the search does find verifiable wreckage from MH370 on the surface, geologist Robin Beaman said underwater volcanoes would probably hamper efforts to recover the black box flight recorder from the depths.

Beaman said the Southeast Indian Ocean Ridge cut directly through the search area, meaning the sea bed was rugged and constantly being reshaped by magma flows.

He said the ridge was an "extremely active" range of volcanoes sitting at an average depth of 3,000 metres (1.86 miles), which marked the point where the Antarctic and Australasian tectonic plates collide.

"It's very unfortunate if that debris has landed on the active crest area, it will make life more challenging," Beaman, who specialises in underwater geology at Queensland's James Cook University, told AFP.

"It's rugged, it's covered in faults, fine-scale gullies and ridges, there isn't a lot of sediment blanketing that part of the world because it's fresh (in geological terms)."

Finding the flight and cockpit voice data will be crucial in determining what caused the Boeing 777 to deviate inexplicably off course and fly thousands of miles in the wrong direction.

Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board.

University of Sydney aviation expert Peter Gibbens said searchers faced a race against time, with acoustic signals from the black box set to fall silent in about two weeks when its battery expires.

"They're going to be pushing it with time, the chances are stacked against them," he said.

In a sign of the level of cooperation achieved in the search, the US military has sent a hi-tech black box locator to Perth which will be reportedly fitted to an Australian navy ship so it can scour the likely crash site.

Van Sebille said the remote location at least meant searchers did not have to contend with the large collections of random garbage that litter most other oceans, reducing the likelihood they would be distracted by false leads.

"This area of ocean is virtually pristine," he said, explaining that ocean currents in the area naturally moved flotsam north, away from the search area.

Planes and ships converged on the southern Indian Ocean Wednesday, resuming the hunt for wreckage from Flight MH370 after weather conditions improved, as grieving passengers' families demand answers about the ill-fated jet.

Gale force winds, driving rain and mountainous seas prevented any sorties being flown from Perth in Australia's west on Tuesday, but 12 aircraft were deployed Wednesday, with South Korean planes joining the hunt for the first time.

"Today's search is split into three areas within the same proximity, covering a cumulative 80,000 square kilometres (30,000 square miles)," said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority which is coordinating the operation.

Australian naval vessel the HMAS Success, which was forced to leave the storm-tossed region, has returned and was conducting a surface sweep of a zone where two objects were spotted this week.

AMSA said four Chinese ships had also reached the search area, in the quest to find physical proof that the Malaysia Airlines jet went down in the remote seas, and clues as to why it veered off course and vanished on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the search -- now in a recovery phase -- would continue until there was no hope of finding anything.

"It is not absolutely open-ended but it is not something we will lightly abandon," he said ahead of a moment of silence in parliament in Canberra for victims of the doomed flight which included six Australians.

"The crash zone is about as close to nowhere as it's possible to be, but it's closer to Australia than anywhere else," he added in underscoring the remoteness of the search area as authorities seek to retrieve sunken or floating debris and the "black box" flight recorder.

- Undersea volcanoes -

In another complication, experts warned that a chain of undersea volcanoes runs directly through the search area, meaning the ocean floor is extremely rugged and constantly being reshaped by magma flows.

"It's very unfortunate if that debris has landed on the active crest area, it will make life more challenging," Robin Beaman, an underwater geology expert at Queensland's James Cook University told AFP.

"It's rugged, it's covered in faults, fine-scale gullies and ridges, there isn't a lot of sediment blanketing that part of the world because it's fresh (in geological terms)."

Abbott said "a considerable amount" of suspected debris had been sighted since the search began, although none has yet been retrieved.

"We are confident that some will be," he added.

The US Navy has sent a specialised device to help find the "black box" flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, along with a robotic underwater vehicle that can scan the ocean's depths.

Malaysia Airlines confirmed to AFP that the battery which powers the plane's black box will emit a locator signal of 30 days, once activated by contact with water, giving searchers less than two weeks to find a crash site.

Those efforts will be crucial in determining what caused the Boeing 777 to deviate inexplicably off its intended course between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, and fly thousands of kilometres in the wrong direction.

Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board. In the absence of firm evidence, leading scenarios include a hijacking, pilot sabotage or a crisis that incapacitated the crew and left the plane to fly on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.

- 'Words can't ease pain' -

Two thirds of the passengers were Chinese, and relatives there have accused Malaysia of being deceitful and callous in their handling of the tragedy.

Scores of emotional relatives mounted a protest on Malaysia's embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, scuffling with guards and abusing the ambassador as they demanded to know what happened to their loved ones.

"Return our relatives," the family members shouted as they massed at the embassy gates. Another slogan went: "The Malaysian government are murderers."

Malaysia's ambassador to China Iskandar Sarudin later arrived at the hotel where relatives are staying, to face an angry tirade. Some shouted at him to kneel before them, while others launched a volley of abuse, calling him a "liar" and "rogue".

Malaysian authorities have defended their decision to release satellite analysis that determined the plane had plunged into the southern seas far off western Australia, possibly running out of fuel.

On Tuesday, they made public more details of the data used to conclude that the plane was lost.

It said the last complete contact between a satellite that was "pinging" signals to the flight came at 8:11 am Malaysian time (0011 GMT), with another "partial" signal eight minutes later.

The findings, by British satellite communications firm Inmarsat, suggest the plane was in touch nearly two hours after its scheduled 6:30 am landing time in Beijing, and right around the time it would have run out of fuel.

The analysis suggested the plane disappeared for good in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean but Malaysian officials said a precise location could not be determined.

burs-mp/mfc/pdh

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