Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro: Responding to Some of the More Aggressive Questions

The more aggressive critics of the Nikumaroro Hypothesis on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan routinely lodge several complaints about the hypothesis. Having just fielded some of them (from a polite and gentlemanly critic) I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer some responses.

1. How could Fred Noonan, one of the preeminent celestial navigators of the time, get so far off course as to wind up on Nikumaroro?

Answer: First, he never expected to navigate a bee-line right in to Howland Island. His job was to get them close to the island; then radio direction finding would guide them in. There’s no reason to think he didn’t get them close, but the RDF didn’t work, so they couldn’t find their way in to the island itself. Second, we don’t propose that he and Earhart flew straight from Lae to Nikumaroro, which would have required them to be way off course. We think they got close to Howland, couldn’t find it, and very rationally flew south along the line of position that Noonan had laid out, knowing that if they were north of Howland they should find it, and if they were south of Howland they should come into the Phoenix group – i.e. to Nikumaroro.

2. She didn’t have enough fuel to get to Nikumaroro.

Answer: Nobody can know for sure what conditions Earhart and Noonan faced on their flight, but if they managed their fuel the way they planned to manage it, they should have had enough fuel to do what we think they did – fly to the vicinity of Howland Island and then fly down the line of position to Nikumaroro. The hypotheses that have them crashing at sea invariably include assumptions about fuel evaporation, headwinds, dog-legs on their route of flight, or poor fuel management that are entirely speculative.

3. Nikumaroro was occupied by colonists from Kiribati and Tuvalu from 1939 until 1963. How come they never found evidence of Earhart and Noonan?

Answer: This is a real red herring, because the colonists did find evidence. They’re documented as having found a partial human skeleton, a woman’s shoe, a man’s shoe, a sextant box, a Benedictine bottle, and some corks on chains. They also found airplane parts, and left them in their village.

4. But that’s not definitive evidence!

Answer: It’s not a great big placard with “I am Amelia Earhart” written on it. It’s not a complete Lockheed Electra. It’s not Earhart’s journal stuffed in a bottle. If we controlled the universe, maybe we’d arrange for such definitive evidence to have been found, but we don’t. We don’t have a “smoking gun,” but in archaeology (or in crime scene investigation, for that matter) we seldom do. Between what was found in 1940 and what we’ve found on expeditions to the island, I think we have a pretty good body of evidence; it may not be definitive, but it’s pretty indicative.

5. But the island’s only four and a half miles long, only a mile and a half wide. You’ve gone there eight times and spent millions of dollars. You should have searched every square inch of the place; if she was there, why haven’t you found definitive evidence?

Answer: First, there may not be any definitive evidence left. Imagine, critic, that you die on an island someplace, and the crabs eat you, your clothes, your wallet, your passport. What’s going to be left to show that you were you? Second, we have found a good deal of evidence, mostly at the Seven Site, in the form of female-related artifacts from the U.S., dating to the 1930s, and in the form of fish and shellfish remains that suggest subsistence by a non-indigenous islander. And we’ve found airplane parts, though none that can be absolutely linked to the Electra. Third, the island’s small, yes, but it’s not Central Park or the National Mall. It’s heavily forested, and much of it is covered by feral coconut and pandanus woodland that builds up a tremendous ground cover of deadfall. Much of it is covered by Scaevola, a shrub whose closely intertwined stalks form a near-impenetrable mass about three meters high; it’s very, very slow going to work through this stuff, and very difficult to see anything that’s in or under it. Fourth, the ground surface over much of the island is made up of coral rubble, most of it about finger-sized. Little stuff like bones and small artifacts sifts down through the surface layer and is effectively invisible. Finding such stuff requires literally crawling on hands and knees and troweling the surface. You don’t just stroll around Nikumaroro finding things.

6. But the Electra is a really big, utterly distinctive artifact. Why haven’t you found it, if it’s there?

Answer: Well, maybe we have, in part, in small pieces the colonists brought in to the village, probably after finding them on the reef. We’ve found a lot of aircraft aluminum; the problem is that aircraft aluminum is pretty much aircraft aluminum. It doesn’t have “I am an Electra” stamped all over it. Besides, if our reconstruction of what happened is correct, the airplane stayed on the reef flat for a few days and then went over the edge. At that point one of two things – or a combination of the two – happened. First, all or part of the plane may have slid down the reef face into deep water; the reef face is very steep down to about 300 meters, and that’s as deep as we’ve been able to survey so far. Second, all or part of the plane may have been ripped to shreds in the high-energy environment of the reef edge, and then scattered along the face of the reef by currents and storms, occasionally being coughed up onto the reef flat for the colonists to find. In short, we almost certainly don’t have a big, distinctive airplane to find on Nikumaroro. We may have one, or part of one, in deep water off the Nutiran reef (though personally, I doubt it), but getting down there to find it is a large, expensive undertaking, and thus far we haven’t been able to afford it. We’re going to do it; the money’s being raised right now, and planning is underway. But I’m not sanguine about it; I don’t think the chances are very good that enough of the plane has survived to be identified, and I’m afraid that if a deepwater search doesn’t reveal the Electra squatting someplace on the bottom, looking like an Electra, that will be taken as “proof” that Earhart didn’t land on Nikumaroro. It will, of course, be nothing of the kind, but as our critics routinely remind us, the fact that an allegation makes no sense is scant impediment to those intent on alleging it.

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