Missing Malaysia Airlines plane MH370: Recovery operation could take months or years

LIVE: Rolling coverage of the search for potential debris from Malaysia Airlines MH370 off the WA coast. 

The patch of ocean where search efforts are focused on finding pieces of debris potentially from missing flight MH370 is one of the most treacherous in the world, with survival in freezing waters near-impossible and recovery efforts likely to take months or years.

“You wouldn’t last an hour in the water because of the temperatures.” - Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi

University of Western Australia professor of coastal oceanography Charitha Pattiaratchi said the conditions and the amount of time since the plane was lost meant any survivors from the crash would have since perished.

“With the amount of time that has passed it would be a recovery operation,” he said.

“You wouldn’t last an hour in the water because of the temperatures.”

Professor Pattiaratchi said any recovery efforts would need to stop in April or May and restart in October or September, depending on the severity of the weather.

“There are very few vessels in the world that can work in those conditions,” he said

“You can go further south or further away from land but otherwise it doesn’t get much worse.”

The expected crash site was located within the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the largest in the world for depth and volume.

“It is quite a challenging area to work in. There is swell and weather conditions but you are looking more at the drift,” he said.

“The current is about one knot or half-a-metre per second so if it has been in the water for the last two weeks it would have travelled at least 500 kilometres.

“It is quite deep in that region, four or five kilometres deep, so it is not easy if you have to recover something like that.”

Prof Pattiaratchi compared the potential recovery effort to the operation which removed the wreckage of Air France flight 447 from the Atlantic in 2011, two years after it had crashed in 2009.

“The Air France wreckage took two years to recover and they knew where that was from the beginning,” he said.

“We don’t know where it is, it is remote and rough, and we are going into winter,” he said.

He said the search area was within the “roaring 40s” section of strong westerly winds in the southern hemisphere.

“The average swell in the region is about five metres, while under storm conditions it can go out to 10 metres or more.”

“Water temperature is about 10 to 15 degrees and at the bottom it is near freezing.”

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