Searching for a Missing Plane in an Ocean of Trash

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has scientists worldwide poring over blurry satellite images of remote portions of the Indian Ocean. While some of these photos may provide promising leads, others highlight a different problem: There is a lot of “stuff” in our ocean that doesn’t belong there.

As a marine debris specialist for Ocean Conservancy, I’ve witnessed the problem of ocean trash firsthand. I’ve traveled to the North Pacific Gyre, where large concentrations of plastic debris collect in the middle of the swirling ocean. I’ve cleaned up trash, from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, along the coast of Alaska. I’ve also joined thousands of volunteers in Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup.

I do not wish to overshadow the tragedy of the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner by placing the focus on marine debris. However, ocean trash is a topic that is relevant to the ongoing search. Close examination of marine debris and what we already know will hopefully bring search teams one step closer to finding the missing plane. Additionally, the false positives of debris that plague search and rescue operations daily underscore the fact that marine debris not only threatens ocean wildlife, habitats and economies; it also jeopardizes maritime operations and safety.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that satellites are finding images of large pieces of debris floating in the ocean. Virtually any type of trash you can imagine has been found floating at sea—plastic bags, mattresses, derelict fishing gear, refrigerators and even entire piers.

These out-of-place items complicate matters for the people in charge of the search. For every possible lead, searchers will likely be stymied by dozens of dead ends.

While the sheer amount of refuse in our ocean may seem overwhelming, we can use our existing data to give insight to search teams. Some have suggested using data and statistics “to focus on the probable and rule out the implausible.

It is this small possibility that gives me hope during such a tragic event. Hopefully, data from marine debris research efforts can bring search teams one step closer to ruling out red herrings and finding the missing plane.

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