The All But Impossible Task Of Finding Debris In An Ocean

David Gallo, the special projects director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, explains how to find debris in a large body of water — a topic now defining the search for the missing jet.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Another day of searching, another day of frustration in the effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Planes searching the southern Indian Ocean for possible aircraft debris have found nothing. They're looking for two large floating objects detected by satellite about 1,500 miles off the southwest coast of Australia.

One object is almost 80 feet long, the other is about 15 feet. This is not just like finding a needle in a haystack. In this case, the haystack is vast and the needle could be moving. Here to talk about the debris search is David Gallo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who worked on finding the Air France jet that crashed off Brazil in 2009. Welcome to the program.

DAVID GALLO: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the question of time here. It's almost two weeks since the plane's disappearance and the satellite photos of the possible debris are already days old. I assume that time would be the enemy here in finding this wreck.

GALLO: Yeah, Robert, from the moment this tragedy began, it's been just getting harder with every day that passes, so this is certainly not helping with time passing the way it is.

SIEGEL: Is there some way of inferring through very complex algorithms if a piece of debris is at point X today, then we think that five days ago or 12 days ago it might likely have been here?

GALLO: Yeah. You can infer that and it's actually a science and we've got some of the best people that do that here at Woods Hole Oceanographic. And it's fascinating because it's not just the object, it's the shape of the object and whether it sticks above the water and acts like a sailboat and pushed by the winds or looks like an iceberg and moved more by the currents and then there's plenty in between.

SIEGEL: Well, what are the special challenges posed by the Indian Ocean and the part of the Indian Ocean where the search for the debris is underway now?

GALLO: Well, one, it's remote, it's a long way from anyplace, almost 1,500 miles from Perth. So getting a boat out from Perth takes days, a week. The other thing we're dealing with is a very deep sea floor, from a mile and a half down to three miles, potentially, and also weather that can be horrific.

SIEGEL: You said that people at Woods Hole are working on this problem from the mathematical end?

GALLO: Not officially. So we have a team that did work on the Air France 447 issue and I know they've had a look at this part of the world to see what they can tell, whether it's doable or not. And I think they feel that, you know, we're getting towards the edge of the time window where you can accurately predict backwards two weeks or more.

But, you know, even if they come close, it's going to cut down that huge search area to something a little bit more manageable.

SIEGEL: But to use your phrase, to predicting backwards, running the movie backwards in effect here, what you have to do is figure out ocean currents, but also winds, all sorts of things.

GALLO: They all play in and they don't operate in the same direction at the same speed every day, so you've got - they might fight against one another, the currents and the winds. And also, every piece has its own trajectory. Even if they began together, depending on their shape and size, they'll end up in different places at the end of a certain amount of time.

SIEGEL: And give me a sense of your reaction to how big a problem this is if you're confronted with the Indian Ocean. There is something under the Indian Ocean and bits of it might be floating 1,000 miles off the Australian coast. Does that suggest to you, ah, some evidence to work with at last or no way to solve that?

GALLO: You know, Robert, at this point, any evidence that lasts for more than a day to me is really welcome. And you might say, well, what do you have to do with - why do you care? You're an oceanographer. Our job begins on the surface or beneath the surface. Well, you know, before we want to deploy our teams and our equipment to an area, we want to be pretty sure that we're not being sent on a wild goose chase.

And so we follow this pretty closely about what the evidence is and the reasoning is and it's been, you know, difficult. There's no doubt in my mind that given the will of the governments and the time and the resources that this plane will be found, but right now, there's not a single shred of evidence, none, that that plane has crashed, either on land or in the ocean.

SIEGEL: Well, David Gallo, thanks for talking with us today.

GALLO: Very welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's David Gallo, special projects director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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