University of South Florida


USF geoscientist creates oceanic tracking model to urge investigators to revive search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight

USF geoscientist creates oceanic tracking model to urge investigators to revive search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight

By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing

A University of South Florida geoscientist created a new method that can reconstruct the drift path and origin of debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing over the Indian Ocean with 239 passengers onboard. 

Gregory Herbert, an associate professor in the School of Geosciences, was inspired the moment he saw photographs of the plane debris that washed ashore on Reunion Island off the coast of Africa a year after the 2014 crash.

“The debris was covered in barnacles, and as soon as I saw that, I immediately began sending emails to the search investigators because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash location,” Herbert said. 

As an evolutionary and conservation biologist, Herbert studies marine systems with a particular focus on shelled marine invertebrates, such as oysters, conchs and barnacles, tiny crustaceans known to stick to many types of surfaces. Over the last two decades, Herbert created and refined a method to extract ocean temperatures stored in their chemistry. He’s utilized this method to determine the ages and extinction risk of the giant horse conchs and investigate the environmental circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Jamestown colony


Barnacle growth experiment | Photo by: Anne Marie Power 

Barnacles and other shelled marine invertebrates grow their shells daily, producing internal layers similar to tree rings. The chemistry of each layer is determined by the temperature of the surrounding water at the time that the layer was formed. In this study, published in AGU Advances, Herbert led an international research team to conduct a growth experiment with live barnacles to read their chemistry and for the first time, unlocked temperature records from the shells of barnacles. 

After the experiment, they applied the successful method to small barnacles from MH370. With help from barnacle experts and oceanographers at the University of Galway, they combined the barnacles’ water temperature records with oceanographic modeling and successfully generated a partial drift reconstruction. 

“French scientist Joseph Poupin, who was one of the first biologists to examine the debris, concluded that the largest barnacles attached were possibly old enough to have colonized on the wreckage very shortly after the crash and very close to the actual crash location where the plane is now,” Herbert said. “Sadly, they have not yet been made available for research, but with this study, we’ve proven this method can be applied to a barnacle that colonized on the debris shortly after the crash to reconstruct a complete drift path back to the crash origin.”

 USF geoscientist creates oceanic tracking model to urge investigators to revive search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight

Al-Qattan monitoring instruments during analyses | Photo by: Gregory Herbert 

Up to this point, the search for MH370 has spanned several thousands of miles along a north-south corridor deemed “The Seventh Arc,” where investigators believe the plane could have glided after running out of fuel. Because ocean temperatures can change rapidly along the arc, Herbert says this method could reveal precisely where the plane is located.  

Even if the plane is not on the arc, Herbert said studying the oldest and largest barnacles can still narrow down the areas to search in the Indian Ocean. 

“Knowing the tragic story behind the mystery motivated everyone involved in this project to get the data and have this work published,” said Nasser Al-Qattan, a recent USF geochemistry doctoral graduate who helped analyze the barnacles. “The plane disappeared more than nine years ago, and we all worked aiming to introduce a new approach to help resume the search, suspended in January 2017, which might help bring some closure to the tens of families of those on the missing plane.” 

This research was done in collaboration with Ran Tao, USF spatial geoscientist; Howard Spero, professor emeritus from University of California, Davis; and barnacle experts and oceanographers Sean McCarthy, Ryan McGeady and Anne Marie Power at the University of Galway.

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