Next week, the expedition launches to search the deep reef slope off Nutiran on Nikumaroro. Absent some utter disaster (piracy, sunk by a rogue wave, etc), it will produce one of four outcomes:
1. A definitive, no-doubt-about-it, smoking-gun Electra-part.
2. A probable/maybe Electra-part that requires more study and/or a return trip to recover.
3. One or more ambiguous items or other phenomena requiring more study, in situ or elsewhere; or
As I've argued on this site before, even a "4" result would in no way disprove the Nikumaroro Hypothesis; it would only indicate that with the technology now in hand, given the likely reduction of the wreck by the forces of nature, we haven't been able to find it. But the inevitable reaction by TIGHAR's one or two naysayers will certainly be to trumpet the negative data and insist that it DOES show that AE and FN never made it to Niku. That will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on fundraising for further research.
It's hard -- even impossible -- to predict the effect of a "2" or "3" result; it depends on what's found. But either would probably generate pressure for more underwater work, to verify or disverify whatever has been found.
A "1" result could have either of two quite different results. It might unleash a great wave of support for more work to flesh out the story of the castaways and what happened to them. It might generate pressure to turn Nikumaroro into a tourist destination, with all the tricky environmental, social, and political consequences such a transformation would entail. And/or people might simply say "OK, that mystery's solved; let's go on to (Insert your favorite mystery)."
I think we ought to be discussing, in at least preliminary terms, what TIGHAR ought to do in the event of either a "1" or a "4" finding.
If "1," I think our prime obligation will be to protect the island. Work with the Kiribati government and anybody else who'll help to make sure the place isn't overrun by treasure hunters or just plain tourists. One obvious thing to do might be to negotiate an arrangement with one or two responsible cruise ship operators to take tourists on carefully controlled visits to the island -- satisfy the demand (assuming there is a demand) in a way that doesn't injure the island, its plants and animals, its air and water, or its archaeology. Such tourist visits might be coordinated with an ongoing program of research at the Seven Site, perhaps at the Aukaraime Shoe Site, the putative Camp Zero, the Village, and other locations, in which visitors could participate under supervision.
If "4," the problem will be to continue research at all; there will be a natural tendency to see the Niku Hypothesis as discredited, and funding is likely to dry up. But there are relatively low-cost ways to get to Niku and spend a reasonable amount of time doing reasonable and useful research. We still have the Seven Site to finish excavating. There's still the Village to search, and the neighborhood of the Shoe Site, and the putative Camp Zero. We could use some comparative studies at the Loran Site. Last year I was able to estimate that we could put a dozen and a half or so people on the island for close to a month to do a range of archaeological projects for about $200,000. The accommodations wouldn't be swanky, but they'd be livable, and there's serious work to be done. This work might or might not yield smoking guns, but I continue to think that we do ourselves a disservice, and participate in the dumbing-down of the population, by focusing on smoking guns; we ought to be showing people how real research is done. The real research we have done, and are doing, is building up a body of evidence that I think makes a convincing case for the Niku Hypothesis -- regardless of whether we ever find a definitive Electra-part or scrap of Earhart DNA.
Besides the fieldwork, there are a number of analytic avenues to be pursued. Did the ointment pot really contain freckle creme? What sizes of shoes did Earhart have on the plane anyway? Who built the fire at the Shoe Site, when, and why? What else can we glean from the various archives, from the recordings in the Solomons, from the faunal remains? What about some of our head-scratcher artifacts? And where the devil are the bones and artifacts that went to Fiji in 1940? There's lots to do, and we ought to be thinking about how to do it, if this year's expedition is a success or if it comes back empty-handed.