Strategies for simulating the drift of marine debris

Jonathan, V Durgadoo, Arne Biastoch, Adrian L. New, Siren Ruhs, Aylmer J. G. Nurser, Yann Drillet, Jean-Raymond Bidlot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Modelling the drift of marine debris in quasi-real time can be of societal relevance. One pertinent example is Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The aircraft is assumed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean, leaving floating wreckage to drift on the surface. Some of these items were recovered around the western Indian Ocean. We use ocean currents simulated by an operational ocean model in conjunction with surface Stokes drift to determine the possible paths taken by the debris. We consider: (1) How important is the influence of surface waves on the drift? (2) What are the relative benefits of forward- and backward-tracking in time? (3) Does including information from more items refine the most probable crash-site region? Our results highlight a critical contribution of Stokes drift and emphasise the need to know precisely the buoyancy characteristics of the items. The differences between the tracking approaches provide a measure of uncertainty which can be minimised by simulating a sufficiently large number of virtual debris. Given the uncertainties associated with the timings of the debris sightings, we show that at least 5 items are required to achieve an optimal most probable crash-site region. The results have implications for other drift simulation applications.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
JournalJournal of Operational Oceanography
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2021


  • MH370
  • flaperon
  • Lagrangian analysis
  • operational model
  • Stokes drift


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