International researchers have argued that modelling of ocean barnacle shell formation and sea temperature could prove useful analytical data to locate the crash site of a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER.

Contact with the aircraft, operating the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight MH370, was lost as it deviated from its flightpath in March 2014. Intensive searches of remote Indian Ocean areas, based on mathematical computations from satellite data, have failed to identify the point where the jet came down.

But some debris from the 777 has washed ashore, notably a flaperon which was found in Reunion more than a year after the disappearance. Its surface was covered with stalked barnacles, and the research team believes their shell structures could “unlock clues” to the flaperon’s originating point.

The details are contained in a newly-published paper in the journal of US-based Earth and space science institute AGU.

Barnacle shell calcite contains different isotopes of oxygen, and the ratio between them is temperature-dependent. Warmer sea water result in lower isotope ratios in shell layers.

The paper states that the largest barnacles on the flaperon were around 15-16 months in age which means the sequentially-deposited shell layers could potentially be converted into a complete and detailed history of sea temperatures during the barnacles’ – and the flaperon’s – drift, including the drift origin.

MH370 flaperon barnacles-c-ATSB

Source: ATSB

MH370’s recovered flaperon showing the extent of barnacle encrustation

This concept is not entirely new. The French defence ministry had previously commissioned development of a calibration model to link the shell layers to the sea temperature, but this was an approximation intended to produce quick results.

One of the aims of the new research has been to develop a tighter model of the isotope-temperature relationship by analysing shells grown in a laboratory under experimental conditions. The other aim, says the paper, was to develop a method of simultaneously solving the “where and when” of each barnacle’s sea-temperature record.

“Our integrative approach is capable of reconstructing the entire MH370 flaperon drift trajectory back to the crash site location should the largest, oldest flaperon barnacles be made available for study,” it states.

Seven researchers have contributed to the paper, from the University of South Florida, Kuwait University, University of California, and National University of Ireland.