Despite the massive amount of resources allocated for the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, or MH370, authorities have yet to find a single piece of wreckage from the Boeing 777, which is believed to have crashed into the ocean off the Western Australian coast after disappearing during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China. Here are some facts and figures about the now year-long search; the largest and most expensive aviation search ever mounted in history.
What searchers are using to comb the sea floor: Searchers are primarily utilizing survey ships with sophisticated sonar and echo equipment to conduct a bathymetric survey of the sea floor to narrow down possible search areas, which gives searchers a detailed look at the seafloor elevations, valleys and cliffs. This is a crucial first step in the actual search because of how little of the seafloor in the search area was mapped prior to MH370’s disappearance. Without knowledge of the sea floor, towed equipment could easily be lost. For more on how this works, click here.
China’s Zhu Kezhen survey ship and Fugro Equator and Fugro Discovery survey ships, both owned by Dutch’s Fugro company and Phoenix International’s GO Phoenix are taking part in the bathymetric surveying. The two Fugro ships are using “side-scan sonar, multi-beam echo sounders and video cameras” in the search, according to BBC. The British Trafalger-class HMS Tireless nuclear sub is using its own sophisticated sonar equipment to aid the search.
In all, the governments of eight countries – Malaysia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia -- have been directly involved at some phase of the search, whether that was early on when planes surveyed the sea for floating debris or later when the search narrowed, according to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB). In the first phases of the search, 22 planes and 19 ships in total were involved, according to CNN.
How much of the sea floor has been searched: Part of the difficulty of the search is the massive, 23,000 square mile search area, roughly the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia. That search area is actually a refined area that the search teams narrowed down in late August of last year after analyzing satellite data, weather conditions and MH370's likely range. It is located in a part of the southern Indian Ocean about 1,100 miles west of Perth, Australia, known for its harsh weather, which has complicated efforts. As of March 5, searchers have combed over just over 10,000 square miles and the ATSB expects to cover the entire 23,000 square mile area by May of this year.
This map, which was last updated by the ATSB on February 25, shows exactly how much of the seafloor has been searched. Apart from the sea floor being surveyed, more than 1.7 million square miles have been searched total, including by air, using satellite imagery or on the surface.
How much money has been spent on the search: The combined budget for the search is $93 million and is being financed by the Australian and Malaysian governments. Australia has financed about $70 million of that amount, according to the Wall Street Journal. That is expected to last long enough to complete the search of the current search area in May, but it is unclear who will fund an expanded search, if there is one.
The leaders of Australia and Malaysia have been treading lightly on the topic of what to do after the $93 million runs out, but Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted Wednesday during an address to parliament and victims’ families he “can’t promise that the search will go on at this intensity forever.” Malaysia is reportedly weighing options for continuing the search once Australia scales back its funding.
What's been learned: For one, scientists now have a far more detailed look at the remote area in the southern Indian ocean than they ever had before. This part of the ocean would likely never have been mapped so thoroughly if it weren't for the search for MH370. Geoscience Australia, a government agency, has partly funded the search and have benefited greatly from the bathymetric mappings of the seafloor.
“We’ve found underwater remnant volcanoes, in one case it is about 14 kilometers in diameter and 2.2 kilometers in height. Those features were invisible in the data previously,” said Dr. Stuart Minchin, chief of the Environmental Geoscience Division at the agency.
The more remarkable discoveries are valley-like systems as large as the Grand Canyon and mountain formations more than 7,000 feet in height. The surveying has revealed that previous estimates for the depth of the ocean in the area were off by up to a mile. Read more about the scientific discoveries made with data from the search at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Malaysia, Australia and Indonesia are currently carrying out trail programs using systems that ping their planes every 15 minutes, instead of every 30 to 40 minutes. That would have greatly reduced the area of the MH370 search. The airline industry came under harsh public criticism over MH370’s disappearance, which for many unfamiliar with current tracking systems seemed like an impossibility. Many were shocked to learn the planes they and their loved ones fly on were not tracked more accurately.