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Searching For A Plane On The Ocean Floor Is Unmapped Territory


There's confusion over whether the pings being heard in the Indian Ocean are signals from the black box of the lost Malaysian airliner, Flight 370. Australia's Prime Minister says he's confident the pings are from the black box. But an official in charge of the search is not so sure. Even if the signals turn out to be from the black box, searching for the plane will be difficult. Simon Boxall, a lecturer in oceanography at the University of Southampton in Great Britain, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON BOXALL: Hello, Scott.

SIMON: So if it does turn out to be the black box, help us understand the terrain down there. You just don't put a guy at the end of a rope and have him pick up the box, do you?

BOXALL: You don't. You're looking at quite some depth. You're looking at sort of three miles down in the ocean. And so the pressure there is about four tons per square inch. So we can't put people down there. We have to use robotic systems. Now the Ocean Shield, the Australian ship, has on board what we call an autonomous underwater vehicle, AUV. And that's like a small submarine that's unmanned, and it goes off. And it can use cameras, and it can use use sonar to scan the seabed to look for abnormalities like the wreckage of a plane.

SIMON: And tell us a bit about the ocean bed.

BOXALL: It's a bit rockier than the Rockies. It's that sort of terrain. The location they're looking at is at the foot of a huge mountain. That mountain rises about three and a half kilometers. That's about two miles up from the sea floor. So it's on a really quite steep terrain. We don't know whether the seabed there is muddy, silty - in which case things can sink into the seabed - or whether it's rocky. We've got better maps of the moon's surface for this area than we do of the seabed itself. So, you know, if someone said to you, this is on the moon, we could tell you what the terrain was like. We don't really know what it's like here. We don't have detailed maps.

SIMON: I have a lot of respect for the Royal Australian Navy, but has anybody ever been able to pick up something this deep in the ocean before?

BOXALL: The technology is there, but it's rare. And there isn't - there aren't that many vehicles that can operate at these sorts of depths.

SIMON: We realize you're thousands of miles away from the scene, but do you have any strong feelings about whether this ping is for real?

BOXALL: It's very difficult to tell. I've seen the pictures. I've seen the news report. I've seen the data that they're collecting. The fact that they have picked up two separate pinger systems - and bear in mind, the 777 has two pingers on board - does lee credence to the fact that this is probably, and I emphasize probably, the MH370 on the seafloor.

SIMON: Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at Southampton University in Britain. Thanks so much for being with us.

BOXALL: Thank you.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.