The most challenging search in human history – Dr. Mohd Fadzil Akhir

“Eat as much as you can, otherwise you’ll get seasick” – that was what my professor told me when I was seasick on my first research cruise into the Southern Ocean. Where it was a joke or a serious advice, I didn’t know. But the condition of the sea at that time is what made it worse.The ocean was more than choppy, the waves were high,and I couldn’t imagine going through three weeks under such condition.I was literally on plain biscuits and water during the first week of the cruise, and nothing else could enter my tummy.

I never imagined the sea condition would be that bad. Some crew members told us that on their way to pick us at the port, the wave was even bigger. Basically what I heard about Southern Ocean is true after all – the roughest sea on the planet

For the past few days, the attention went to this remote ocean in the southern hemisphere. Not many realise the presence of the ocean, and that is why that when it was announced that possible debris of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 were sighted here, it was referred as the southern Indian Ocean.

To be precise, the area referred is in the Southern Ocean. It has very unique characteristics that makes it different from other oceans. In other word, it would be the last ocean you would chose to manage any search operation.It was named the roughest seas for a reason. Under normal condition, the waves can reach 4m to 5m high. This means, in bad condition, it could get even bigger than a five-storey building.

This is one of the concerns for the search and rescue (SAR) effort.High wave coupled with strong winds, which happen during bad weather condition, can create a lot of white capping on the sea surface. These white capping, which means a white foam form on the surface due to wave breaks, can disrupt sighting for the debris from the planes.

So far, surveillance planes have postponed search efforts for this reason.The weather in the area is also very unpredictable. From day one, stormy weather was reported, and we expect bad weather in the next few days. Obviously this weather system could impinge visibility and slow down the search.This dynamic weather system is not peculiar. This area happens to be the area where warm air from the mid latitudes meet cooler air from the polar. When you have two distinctive air temperature, it creates strong pressure gradient, which subsequently produces strong wind.

This system is the one responsible in regulating this wet and stormy weather system.This unique characteristics is famously known as the "Roaring Forties". The roar is basically referring to the strong wind, which moves from west to east that sits between 40-50 latitude. This strong wind used to be a shipping interest in early centuries. The tail wind of the roaring forties pushed these sailing ships through Cape Horn, Cape Hope and even brought sailors from South Africa to Australia.Although it was a useful feature for early navigators, in this case, it served otherwise.

I consider it to be one of the toughest areas for any search efforts, and as such, this is certainly history in the making.Many might raise the question, why a search for such big pieces of debris takes days? The ocean is vast and dynamic, and a floating object moves according to the current.Luckily, currents can be estimated, but by four to five days (that is, from date of satellite to confirmation date), the current had already moved the object approximately 100km away or more from its original position. Looking for an object in a relatively vast ocean that never sleeps is not an easy job.

Debris is not an unusual object in our ocean. That is why it is not certain whether the debris in the satellite images is part of MH370. It can be anything. It was reported that thousands of shipping containers end up in the ocean every year due to massive storms.Although the lead is promising, given the size of the objects, until we get the physical object, we can never rule out the possibility that the debris could be something else.

The search area is a very remote area and far away from civilisation, almost 2,500km southwest of Perth, which is one of the most isolated cities in the world.The other closest metropolitan is Jakarta, 3,000km northwest. Because of the remoteness, the surveillance plane only has limited hours to do their job in the area. The only closest ship in the area is a cargo fleets another 2,500km away. This is a very pristine area, very far than we could ever imagine.It is the hardest place on earth to run a search, and if the extent of the search is the abyss of this ocean, it becomes even harder. Probably the most extreme search ever conducted by human race.

But I believe this is the kind of event that pushes civilisation to its limit. The bar will be raised and lessons will be learned. Catastrophy is part of human life, it is how we learn to get through.

After two weeks exploring the Southern Ocean on my first trip as a researcher, I woke up one morning with a very different feeling. I looked outside the window and found out that the sea was smooth as silk. I later figured out that we already reached the second part of our cruise; the Indian Ocean.

I never had the chance to say goodbye to the Southern Ocean, because I never wished to come back. As the twist of MH370 search turns to the area, the harshness of the ocean starts to haunt me again.My prayer goes to the people on board and the SAR team. – First pulished in The Malaysian Insider- 30/3/2014


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