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UNC math professors apply research to Flight 370

Professor Roberto Camassa and mathematics department chairman Rich McLaughlin said the issue is a phenomenon called cloaking, which occurs in the transitions between layers of water in the ocean.

“Lakes, oceans, even the atmosphere is stratified,” McLaughlin said. “It’s built of layers of fluid. In the ocean, you have dense water that sits below less dense water.”

In April, McLaughlin and Camassa released a video modeling how objects can disappear within the transitional layer.

“Optical properties are strongly distorted by the presence of these layers,” McLaughlin said. “So in this case, there’s a sphere that’s fallen, and as it goes through this (transitional) layer, it actually disappears from view, re-emerging as it gets to the other side of the layer, almost like a double vision.”

An object that comes to rest within the transitional layer will be cloaked from view — nearly invisible to the eye or to sonar technology, as in the case of the missing Flight 370.

“If you had some type of sonar, you’re just emitting sound and listening for the echo,” Camassa said. “Well, the echo can be completely reflected off. It can be very, very, very confusing, even to the point of hiding an object completely.”

Marine sciences professor John Bane is a licensed pilot, flying commercial and small aircraft for 40 years.

“The airliner itself, while it’s still traveling, it’s moving across the surface of the earth at almost 10 miles a minute,” Bane said. “It’s going 500 miles per hour. So every minute that it moves, it’s 10 miles away from where it was a minute ago. And after two or three hours, it’s a huge area where it could actually be.”

Bane said any number of emergencies could have happened to the plane, its pilots, or technological equipment.

“From my thinking, a pilot’s perspective, it’s still an open question (what happened),” he said.

Camassa said the modeling began as an exercise for the researchers, including undergraduates, in the Joint Applied Mathematics and Marine Sciences Fluids Lab.

“In early April, we kept hearing about how the layering of the ocean was possibly interfering with the search, so at that point we thought, well, maybe it’s a good idea to actually do an illustration of the phenomenon, the deflection by density stratification,” he said.

The plane crash is not the first catastrophe that brought the Joint Fluids Lab into the notice of the general public.

“Previously, we had this with the (2010 Deepwater Horizon) oil spill,” McLaughlin said. “There was something similar, with reported plume formation, that not all the oil was surfacing, it was actually getting trapped in subsurface layers like this.”

UNC’s research attracted considerable attention in 2010, even reaching CNN.

“At that time, Holden Thorp was the chancellor, and since we knew him through scientific interactions, we sent him the information, and then he put us in contact with the NRP people at UNC,” Camassa said.

This time, though, the wider media didn’t call. Camassa said they may have released the video too late, but he still believes in the responsibility of explaining their research to the public.

“Our research, basically, is paid for by taxpayers’ money,” he said. “So I think that whenever we can connect to something as real as an event, and also, most importantly, serve some purpose of illustrating a certain phenomenon, I think it’s our mission to do that.”

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