JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Search for MH370: Suspected debris lies above undersea volcanoes

Video settings

Please Log in to update your video settings

Video will begin in 5 seconds.

Video settings

Please Log in to update your video settings

MH370 search area still to be defined

"We're not searching for a needle in a haystack, we're still trying to define where the haystack is," cautions Vice Chief of the Defence Forces Mark Binskin at the RAAF base Pearce near Perth on Tuesday afternoon.

PT0M0S 620 349

'Absolute disbelief'

The cluster of suspected debris from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been sighted above a giant undersea chain of volcanoes whose complex terrain has barely been charted, an Australian marine geologist says.

Robin Beaman, from James Cook University, said so little of the southern Indian Ocean sea floor, including the search zone, had been mapped in detail that any attempt to retrieve wreckage would require extensive 3D mapping, possibly by ships with multibeam echo sounders.

Crew members of the Australian Navy ship, HMAS Success, use a spotlight as they look for debris in the southern Indian Ocean.

Crew members of the Australian Navy ship, HMAS Success, use a spotlight as they look for debris in the southern Indian Ocean. Photo: Reuters

But Australia no longer has the capacity to chart depths of 3000 metres, the average depth of the search area, because the only government vessel capable of conducting mapping of that kind, the RV Southern Surveyor, had been decommissioned in December.

The research vessel's replacement was being built in Singapore and was about to undergo sea trials, Dr Beaman said.

''It's bad timing really. Australia has no capability of mapping these depths,'' he said. Multibeam echo sounders send out sound pulses in the shape of a fan, returning depths of the sea floor directly under the ship and on either side, a pattern known as a swath.

Dr Beaman said the first piece of debris spotted by DigitalGlobe satellites on March 16 was located about 60 kilometres south-west of the active zone of the Southeast Indian Ridge, a chain of underwater volcanoes that ran from the south-west of Australia to below New Zealand. Another object sighted by a Chinese aircraft was about 180 kilometres south-west of the ridge.

The suspected debris picked up by an Australian aircraft on Monday was spotted about 200 kilometres to the north-east of the ridge, Dr Beaman said.

''On the flanks of the ridge, which is very likely where any crash zone occurred, there has been virtually no … mapping apart from the odd strip,'' he said.

The complex terrain of the ridgeline, with peaks tens of metres tall, would make it difficult to spot any debris without good charts and remote-operated underwater vessels.

''It's all going to have to be remapped, there's no doubt,'' he said.

International research groups had conducted sea floor surveys in the region, using multibeam echo sounders to create 3D maps of the sea floor, but the last two surveys occurred almost 20 years ago and used outdated technology, he said.

These surveys charted several areas about 70 kilometres wide while other research ships had gathered detail on the sea floor as they sailed from one port to another, but the paths they charted were only about 10 kilometres to 20 kilometres wide.

''It'll be very unlikely that debris has fallen in those little 10 to 20-kilometre wide zones,'' he said.

''You're left with gaps of hundreds of kilometres where there is no detailed understanding of what the sea floor terrain looks like.''

Dr Beaman said it was not surprising that an area of deep open water so far from land or regular shipping routes had not been charted in detail. ''You have to put your effort where it's most needed,'' he said. ''There's very little to bump into and the search zone is 2000 kilometres from the edge of our exclusive economic zone.'' Only depth readings were available for most of the search area.

A Defence spokeswoman said while the search area was within the Australian Hydrographic Service's area of charting responsibility, it had not been mapped to great detail because of the very deep nature of the region, which made it less risky for ships.

Related Coverage

After 17 agonising days, MH370 families' hopes dashed by a 26-word text

A 17-day vigil for Australian families praying for loved ones aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 ended at 11.52 on Monday night.

Malaysia Airlines MH370: Tony Abbott offer to help grieving relatives get to Perth

The grieving families of the passengers and crew on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 are clamouring to come to Perth to be nearer the search after a declaration by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that the flight had crashed into the inhospitable waters of the southern Indian Ocean 2500 kilometres from Perth, with the loss of all on board.

Mother of Malaysia Airlines passenger in 'absolute disbelief'

Liu Fenghua did not think much of it when she was told her son's Malaysia Airlines flight had not arrived as scheduled in Beijing. But then she went online and checked the news. The revelation that the flight had "lost contact", she said, stunned her into "absolute disbelief".

MH370: start to refine the search  (Thumbnail) MH370 search area still to be defined

"We're not searching for a needle in a haystack, we're still trying to define where the haystack is," cautions Vice Chief of the Defence Forces Mark Binskin at the RAAF base Pearce near Perth on Tuesday afternoon.

Currents, acoustics to play lead role in black box search

Ocean scientists expect to narrow down search area for submerged wreckage of MH370 to 2500 square kilometres by working back along ocean currents from any floating debris found in coming days.

Missing jet: China demands satellite data from Malaysia

China demanded that Malaysia turn over the satellite data used to conclude that a Malaysia Airlines jetliner had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 on board. Officials sharply narrowed the search area as a result of that assessment, but the zone remains as large as Texas and Oklahoma combined.

Grieving families of ill-fated MH370 clamour for exodus to Australia

Families of the 239 passengers and crew on flight MH370 clamouring to travel to Perth to be nearer the search.

Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: the race to find black boxes

Canberra: Time is running out to find the crucial keys that could solve the mystery of how and why Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went down.

Full MH370 coverage

Everything you need to know about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet.

Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: search resumes, but still looking for the 'haystack'

The hunt for wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 resumes, but searchers say they aren't looking for a needle in a haystack, they're still looking for the haystack.

Search for MH370: how cockpit's security door may have left conscious passengers helpless in mid-air

If the pilots of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 wanted to cut passengers and crew off from the outside world for the duration of the doomed flight, they could have, aviation experts say.

Related Coverage

Featured advertisers

Special offers

Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo