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What's next in the search for MH370?

Recovered debris may shed light on the fate of missing aircraft, but important questions remain unanswered

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On Wednesday, Malaysia’s prime minister announced that a piece of debris that washed up on Réunion Island is indeed from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — the Boeing 777 that mysteriously vanished with 239 people aboard in March 2014. American, Australian, and French investigators have not yet confirmed that the wreckage is from MH370, saying only that it is from a Boeing 777, though French officials leading the analysis say there is a "very high probability" that the piece is from the ill-fated aircraft. MH370 is currently the only Boeing 777 unaccounted for, and the only 777 to have presumably crashed in the Southern Hemisphere.

This week's revelations mark the most significant development in what has become one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8th, 2014, before veering off course and disappearing from radar. Officials have long assumed that the aircraft crashed in the Indian Ocean, and all those aboard have been presumed dead. But an international search effort has so far failed to recover the wreckage, and the reasons for its disappearance remain unclear, leaving the families of those aboard in an excruciating state of limbo.

The recovered 6-foot piece of a plane wing, known as a flaperon, appears to be the first physical evidence that MH370 crashed into the Indian Ocean, though it’s not yet clear whether the discovery will shed any light on what brought the plane down — or where the rest of it may be.

"It's not really going to change anything about the search for the plane."

"It's not really going to change anything about the search for the plane going forward," says Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, noting that computer models suggested that debris could have drifted to Réunion. "What this finding tells us is that we're on the right track, and looking in the right place."

The barnacle-covered flaperon was discovered last week by people cleaning a beach on Réunion, a small French island in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar. It was taken to a military laboratory in France for analysis earlier this week, along with a suitcase that was also found on Réunion. On Thursday, Malaysia's transport minister announced that a team of investigators had recovered more debris on the island, including window panes and seat cushions, though it's not yet clear whether those belong to MH370. French authorities say they have received no new debris.

Australia, which has been leading the underwater search effort, said this week that the discovery of the flaperon won't change the parameters of its search, which has focused on a 46,000-square-mile area of the Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia. Réunion is located about 2,500 miles west of the search area, and within the range where investigators say wreckage could have drifted. Computer models show that the Indian Ocean's counter-clockwise currents could have carried the plane’s wreckage anywhere from western Australia to the coast of Madagascar.

"The proverbial butterfly flapping its wings."

Pattiaratchi notes that it’s still unclear when the flaperon washed ashore, and says that trying to work backward to determine where the plane went down wouldn't do anything to narrow down the range. What would be more helpful, he adds, is finding other debris from the plane. That could allow investigators to triangulate their search and narrow their field. "In situations like this, it's really not the quantity of debris that's important but the diversity of locations," he says.

Erik van Sebille, a climate scientist and oceanographer at Imperial College London, agrees that recovering geographically dispersed wreckage would be a more significant development, though he says it’s entirely possible that other debris may never reach land, underscoring the immense difficulty in analyzing ocean currents. "It's hard to pinpoint where this piece of debris came from because the ocean is so turbulent and so chaotic," he says.

"It's the same as the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings," van Sebille adds. "No weatherman would predict the weather two years in advance, or 18 months in advance, because there's just too much chaos and tiny fluctuations that have dramatic results. It's the same thing working backwards with ocean currents."

Lab analysis is ongoing

But investigators are hopeful that closer analysis of the flaperon could shed light on how the plane crashed. A prevailing theory is that MH370 ran out of fuel after abruptly shifting course, but that still doesn’t explain the orientation of the aircraft when it entered the water. Some have speculated that the apparent lack of damage on the plane part suggests that the aircraft was deliberately landed, while others have noted that microscopic analysis would reveal any signs of a mid-air explosion. Any deformation of the flaperon could also provide clues on the angle at which the plane entered the water, experts say, or how it broke apart at impact. That, in turn, could better inform the underwater search.

"Are you looking for an airplane where the engine is the biggest bit because everything else has been trashed down to the size of [the recovered flaperon], or is it easy to break that bit off?" Geoff Dell, head of accident investigation at Central Queensland University, told the Associated Press this week. "In which case the forces might be a lot less, and so larger pieces of structure that are stronger will remain intact."

A fuller picture won't emerge until investigators complete their analysis at a military laboratory in Toulouse, France. A spokesman for France's Bureau of Investigations and Analysis (BEA), which is leading the analysis, declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday morning, citing agency policy on ongoing investigations. But the BEA's findings likely won’t explain why the plane was brought down, or why it suddenly shifted course barely an hour into its flight.

To answer those questions definitively, investigators would need to find the plane’s black box. That piece, like the rest of MH370, is still missing.