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Search for Missing Malaysian Airline MH370 Uncovers Sea Floor Terrain That May Better Predict Tsunamis

The continuing search for a commercial plane missing for more than six months has led to new ocean discoveries that could save countless lives in the event of catastrophic tsunamis.

While conducting the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 jet that disappeared in March with more than 200 souls on board, Australian scientists have uncovered underwater volcanoes and ridges within the depths of the Southern Indian Ocean.

Before being prompted by the search efforts, radars and other technologies had yet to delve that deep into the area of the ocean off the western coast of Australia. However, the region is not uniquely unexplored.

Chief of Environmental Geoscience Division from Geoscience Australia Dr. Stuart Minchin explained that in most deep oceans, data is collected at a lower resolution that may not always capture the terrain at lower depths.

To find the MH370, the agency is using sonar technology with a high resolution. However, the advanced technology requires a more thorough and lengthy process.

"It is a little like mowing grass, where bathymetry [the study and mapping of sea floor topography] is mapped line by line," he said.

Through the tedious process, the newly discovered vast ridges and towering volcanoes could provide scientists and meteorologists with tools to better forecast destructive tsunamis.

Minchin explained that a better understood sea-floor structure can provide agencies with improved data in order to pinpoint which earthquakes could trigger a tsunami. In addition, he said the discoveries could "assist with developing tsunami inundation models that help to show us how a tsunami will impact our coastlines."

Tsunamis have proved to be some of the deadliest and calamitous natural disasters. In 2004, a tsunami hit 11 different Asian countries and killed at least 230,000 people, according to the United States Geological Survey. An increasing depth of insight into how underwater earthquakes spark such tsunamis could be the link to saving a multitude of lives.

In addition to tsunami comprehension, other discoveries could lead to beneficial scientific and meteorological data and insight.

According to Minchin, a greater understanding of deep ocean bathymetry can be valuable for a range of purposes such as geological interpretation related to better understand the plate tectonic history, identification of unusual/unique sea floor features and as a baseline product in the creation of hydrodynamic models to better understand ocean currents and oceanographic connectivity.

"Improved understanding of ocean circulation contributes to more accurate modeling and prediction of short and long term trends in environmental variables such as climate," Minchin said.

According to the Joint Australia Coordination Centre, the MH370 search area encompasses the seabed on and around Broken Ridge, an extensive linear, mountainous sea floor structure that once formed the margin between two geological plates.

Over 117,000-square kilometers of the search area have been mapped and analyzed so far. The search recently resumed as part of the underwater search phase which is expected to last up to 12 months to complete.