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Ocean Floor Map May Help Locate Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

May 28, 2014 01:44 PM EDT

Seafloor experts have just created a new ocean map detailing underwater terrain where the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 might be located. The new view could also shed light on what type of underwater vehicles might be used to find the missing airplane and where any debris from the crash might have ended up.

The seafloor topography map illustrates jagged plateaus, ridges and other underwater features of a large area underneath the Indian Ocean where search efforts have focused since contact with flight MH370 was lost on March 8.

The image, published today in Eos, is a 1,243-mile by 870-mile (2,000 kilometers by 1,400 kilometers) area where the plane might be. It shows locations on the seafloor corresponding to where acoustic signals from the airplane's black boxes were reportedly detected, as well as two plateaus near where the elusive "pings" were heard.

Using satellite altimetry, Walter H.F. Smith and Karen M. Marks, both of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry in College Park, Md., created the illustration.

"It is not 'x marks the spot'," Smith said of their map in a news release. "We are painting with a very, very broad brush."

According to the map, the deepest point in the area lies five miles (7,883 meters) underneath the sea - in the Wallaby-Zenith Fracture Zone - while undersea mountains and plateaus rise nearly three miles (5,000 meters) above the deep seafloor.

So far search efforts have been confined to an area of the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia where officials say the plane crashed. They now plan to expand their search.

Smith noted that the search is so difficult because so little is understood about the seafloor in this part of the Indian Ocean - only five percent of the seafloor has been mapped.

Hopefully the new in-depth map could help searchers choose the appropriate underwater robotic vehicles they might use to look for the missing plane, as well as help them find where floating debris might have turned up.

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