Geography of a Tragedy: Finding a Plane in the Middle of the Atlantic

OB-DU029_AirFra_NS_20090601084611.gifYesterday, an Air France passenger plane traveling from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France disappeared in a remote part of the Atlantic Ocean in what will likely soon be confirmed as the deadliest airliner tragedy in a decade.

As you stay apace of the breaking news coverage over the next hours, here are a couple articles I’ve come across that highlight some of the more geographic aspects of the crash and recovery efforts.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has an excellently produced feature complete with video and multimedia interactives. Be sure to check out the Air France flight map and historical timeline of airplane crashes in the Atlantic.

The article also offers some insights into the meteorological factors that may have contributed to the plane’s failing and the technological capabilities of modern aircraft to detect and monitor weather conditions.

Were thunderstorms to blame for the crash?

The area approximately 700 miles off the coast of Brazil where the plane disappeared is part of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) near the equator where maritime winds from the Northern and Southern hemispheres meet to produce thunder clouds and rainstorms; the ITCZ is also responsible for distinct wet and dry seasons in the region. The exact cause of the crash is still under debate: all planes and the pilots who fly them are well-equipped to deal with both thunder and lightning, and it is rare for significant complications to result from these forces alone.
Should planes be better equipped with more sophisticated radar technology?

While the airline pilots would have been well aware of the geographical
particularities of the area in which they were flying, most planes do
not have the on-board radar capacity needed for detailed analysis of
real-time weather conditions. According to Luiz Souza,
a meteorologist with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Studies,
terrestrial weather radar systems normally operate only up to a few
hundred kilometers from the coast, well short of the range of the Air
France flight, and satellite images are available to pilots only with a
delay. The tragedy begs the question: should planes be equipped with
more sophisticated radar technology that could help flight crews better
determine exactly where in a storm system it is safe to fly? Or is the
current model of ground-based monitoring coupled with radio
transmission to pilots sufficient?

How do you find a downed plane in the middle of the ocean, anyway?

Calling for assistance from U.S. satellites, French President Nicolas
Sarkozy said finding the plane “[would] be very difficult.” To estimate
location, search teams used a method of extrapolation based on the
documented flight plan, travel speed, and known location at the time of
last communication. Reports of sightings of fire and debris from other
pilots helped to narrow the search. The Miami Herald
offers further details on the recovery efforts, which are focused on a
massive expanse of ocean northeast of the Brazilian mainland near the
island of Fernando de Noronha. According to the article, while
surveillance planes from France, Brazil, and the U.S. have been
scanning the sea, the area is so remote that military boats from Brazil
will not make it until Wednesday.

Keep following the news the learn more about the geography of the
crash, the international recovery efforts, and the impacts worldwide.

Image courtesy Wall Street Journal.

Sarah Jane for My Wonderful World

2 thoughts on “Geography of a Tragedy: Finding a Plane in the Middle of the Atlantic

  1. Thank’s for information about the accident. I have been particularly interested in the influence of weather conditions on the amount on plane accidents.

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