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Why we shouldn't be surprised we can't find Flight 370

  • A girl stands next to a sign board made and written by the public at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia. (DANIEL CHAN / Associated Press)

Jet aircraft are large, but not compared with the ocean. The weeks-long search for some physical sign of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is not something we should wonder at, considering the frontier nature of our blue planet.

The 29 percent of our planet that is land is inhabited by more than 7 billion of our species, at least a few of whom would have reported a crash or hijacked aircraft. By contrast, the ocean that covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface and 97 percent of its living habitat rarely has more than a few million people on or about its surface. These include commercial mariners, fishermen, cruise ship passengers, sailors aboard the world's military fleets, offshore oil and gas workers, research scientists and the odd sea gypsy.

One reason we've not colonized the ocean, as science-fiction writers (and at least one senator, the late Claiborne Pell, of Rhode Island) once imagined, is that the ocean is a far rougher and more difficult wilderness than any encountered by terrestrial explorers, or even astronauts traveling in the consistent vacuum of space, with its occasional meteorites and space junk to avoid.

The sea pummels us with an unbreathable and corrosive liquid medium; altered visual and acoustic characteristics; changing temperatures, depths and pressures; upwellings; tides; currents; gyres; obscuring marine layers; sudden storms and giant rouge waves; and life forms than can sting, poison or bite.

Even accounting for more than 70 years of classified military hydrographic surveys, we've still mapped less than 10 percent of the ocean with the resolution we've used to map all of the moon, Mars or even several moons of Jupiter.

Obviously, our ability to search for a missing aircraft at sea has come a long way since Amelia Earhart disappeared while trying to cross the Pacific in 1937. But the patched-together satellite data and electronic-signals processing that has so far pointed the Flight 370 search to an area 1,800 miles from Perth, Australia, is no more than a crisis-mode, jury-rigged, extraordinary effort.

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