Saturday, June 1, 2013

What if It's an Airplane?

So what if we're able to get a camera-equipped remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down on the anomaly imaged in side-scan sonar on the Nikumaroro reef (See and find that it does indeed look like the remains of an airplane? What then?

Well, we definitely do not go grapple it up to the surface, for at least three reasons:

1. The reef is a fragile environment, protected under the laws of Kiribati and international law, so any recovery will have to be done in accordance with a carefully thought out and vetted plan, with full environmental controls.

2. An airplane is a complex, multi-metal artifact, whose chemistry is strongly affected by long immersion in sea water. Bringing it up into an oxygen-rich environment may cause it virtually to explode, and will at the very least cause its rapid (probably very rapid) deterioration. Whatever is brought up will have to go instantly into a laboratory setting for detailed, planned, conservation treatment.

3. We want to understand how the plane (sic) got where it is; what's its story? To gain that understanding -- as in any archaeological study or crime scene investigation -- we need to understand the thing's physical context.

So we'll want to take a good hard look at the thing and its surroundings -- image it in all kinds of ways, from all kinds of angles, and prepare a map. We'll want to look at how it's interacting with the reef: is it partly buried? Grown over in coral? Home to a colony of fish? What kinds of fish? How firmly attached is it to the reef? What kind of shape is it in? (Probably not good)

Once we've done this, we can, if it makes sense, develop a recovery plan for all or part of the wreckage. This will need to be done in consultation with a variety of specialists and with the administration of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) and other Kiribati government offices. Once that plan has been developed and approved, then and only then can we send down an ROV to very carefully try to pick up the pieces.

There are only two exceptions I can think of to the above sequence. One would be if the initial inspection reveals a piece or two of easily recoverable wreckage -- just lying there, relatively unencumbered by coral -- and the inspection ship is equipped with a conservation lab that's able to take care of it. In such a case it might be justifiable to plot the exact location of the wreckage and then bring it up. Another exception might be if the wreckage were in some kind of imminent danger -- about to fall off a ledge or be crushed by a falling slab of coral. Then some kind of rescue operation might be in order, but even that would take a good deal of planning.

As TIGHAR's senior archaeologist, my greatest fear is that some dufus with more money than brains will get excited by the current media frenzy and go try to snag the thing (whatever it is) with a net or trawl or something. That could be a disaster both environmentally and archaeologically. It would also be illegal, but the Pacific is too much like the wild west for that to be much of an impediment.  I only hope that everyone will be responsible and cool their jets while we figure out how to handle the thing (if it's really a thing) with the care and respect it -- and the environment -- deserve.