MH370: view the data behind the largest search in aviation history

By on 27 July, 2017

The search for missing flight MH370 is a famously ongoing saga.

The aircraft and the 239 people aboard the flight are still tragically unaccounted for, however in the almost three and a half years since the tragedy occurred, details of an investigation of untold proportions are now being revealed. The multinational team behind the search have just released the first phase of an open data release and the incredible story it tells.

The first clue to the MH370’s whereabouts was determined using the Doppler effect to establish that the aircraft was likely to have crashed in the Indian Ocean. As a result, a multinational search effort for the aircraft was underway, one that went on to become the largest and most expensive search in aviation history. In the face of many challenges, the team behind the search used the most advanced hydrographic surveying equipment and methodologies to map this little explored part of the ocean floor in very fine detail. Unfortunately, there was no aircraft found among the incredible 3D models created.

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Altogether the search is a compelling, albeit devastating, story. It is also a story defined by geography, technology and data. A storymap, therefore, is one of the best ways to for telling this particular story.

In line with the release of the sea floor mapping data collected during the first phase of the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Geoscience Australia, one of the leading authorities behind the search, chose to use Esri Story Maps.

Screenshot from the MH370 search story map accompanying the Phase One open data release.

The Story Map shares the story of the search for MH370 in an interactive, visual format, showing the most interesting geomorphic features in a web browser, with flythrough visualisations, images and annotations.

“It was important for us at Geoscience Australia to make sure we delivered this data so that it is accessible to a range of users, not only experts,” said Dr Stuart Minchin, the Chief of Geoscience Australia’s Environmental Geoscience Division.

“This data will contribute to a greater understanding of the geology of the deep ocean and the complex processes that occur there,” he said.

Tobias Schubert from Esri Australia said the MH370 storymap tells the story of the search, the collection of data and how the public can now access the available data.

“Along with identifying large geological formations and several shipwrecks,” he said. “the search uncovered a number of smaller items on the sea floor, including whale bones, steel cables and oil drums.”

A 3D image of the bathymetry with view looking northeast into the Diamantina Escarpment.

The search for MH370 involved collecting large volumes of data in two phases – the first phase was a survey to collect bathymetry data, or data of the sea floor topography, to develop maps of the sea floor in the search area. These maps were used to safely guide the second phase of the search, the underwater search. With the Story Map, viewers can look at locations of debris and view drift modelling conducted by CSIRO.

Australia, with the support of Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China, committed to releasing the data acquired during the two phases of the search to the public. Geoscience Australia is delivering the data on behalf of the Australian Government. Phase Two is scheduled for release in mid-2018.

Want to dig deeper

A 3D image of the bathymetry of the sea floor with a view looking northeast into a ‘fracture zone’.

The technical and scientific community is able to download the raw datasets to build their own conclusions and to study the ocean’s depths in this hard to access part of Earth.

Users wanting to download the processed datasets from or select an area of interest to download from

For technical users wanting to download the raw data can download the multiple raw datasets from the National Computational Infrastructure or from the Amazon Web Service portal (via s3://


Hope for a new search area

This, however, may not be the end of the story. There is growing evidence that the search authorities have been looking for the aircraft in the wrong place all along.

As the storymap goes on to explain, drift modelling from the wreckage found so far suggests that a crash site is likely located north of the area subject of both Phases One and Two of the search. Even the government bodies behind the search have admitted as much. For now, however, the search has been officially suspended.

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