Update – 6:00 pm June, 5, 2014: The answer to the titular question is apparently “No.” The search has been narrowed to the southern Indian Ocean, far from the Bay of Bengal. While the fires are clearly not associated with MH370, the observations described here are peculiar and possibly caused by other human activity such as illegal logging. See also our cautionary post on all the satellite images of “debris” that eventually turned up nothing.
Update – 12:00 pm March 17, 2014: Clarification on nighttime fire detections. There have been a few nighttime fire detections from the island by the VIIRS instrument on March 6th and in late January. According to our review, there have been no MODIS detections of fires from this island prior to March 10th.
Update – 4:38 pm March 17, 2014: Added animation from the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) eliminating the possibility that the fires were started by natural causes.
We’ve already done several posts on the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370, mainly pointing out how many gaps there are in our observation of Planet Earth. (see John’s quote in the Washington Post). But thanks to the keen eyes of a skytruther named Emily, we have a lead on something very interesting in the Bay of Bengal that has peculiar correlation to the timeline of MH370’s disappearance.
On March 8th, sometime between 12 and 15 hours after the Boeing 777 disappeared from secondary radar, a very distinct plume of smoke appeared on MODIS imagery from the north side of North Sentinel Island (part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territories of India). The island is solely occupied by an indigenous people known as the Sentinelese who have categorically rejected almost all contact with the outside world. Except for a series of friendly visits in the 1990’s from Dr. Trilokinath Pandit of the Anthropological Survey of India, they have greeted all outsiders with a hail of arrows. In 1981 they forced a hasty evacuation from a grounded cargo vessel still visible in Google Maps, (click the link and look on the NW corner of the island) and spurned a helicopter checking to see if they survived the 2004 Tsunami. Scanning the island, it is clear the island shows no evidence of agriculture, only sand beaches and dense tropical forest canopy. Anthropologists report they are technically a stone age tribe (though they use repurposed bits of metal from shipwrecks) and while they posses fire, did not know how to make it.
So back to the modern era. At 4:30 GMT, NASA’s Terra satellite recorded, as always, a quiet, smokeless image of the remote island. But a mere 3 hours later, when Aqua passed overhead at 7:35 GMT, the satellite captured this image of a distinct smoke plume.
The following day, Landsat 8 acquired an image of the island, and while no smoke was visible, a roughly 40 hectare (over 123 acre) burn scar cuts into the dense interior canopy of the island. Below you can scroll between a reference image from February 5th (on the right) and the Landsat 8 image acquired on March 9 (on the left). Click here to open a larger image with the burn scars outlined.
This is a false-color (Bands 7-5-1) contrast-enhanced image, which exaggerates the reflectance of light in the near-infrared wavelengths so that healthy vegetation appears exceptionally green, while burn scars and bare earth or sand appear reddish-orange.
Finally, infrared sensors aboard the MODIS satellites and NOAA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite detected fires on the north side of this island from March 8-10. We reviewed the past three months and March 2013, and found no other fires on North Sentinel Island detected by MODIS. However, there was a VIIRS nighttime fire detections on the north side of the island on March 6th, as well as a few in late January which are consistent with the coastal burn scars visible in the Landsat image from February.
So what is going on? Well there are a few possibilities, but nothing concrete…
- Could this be connected to the disappearance of MH370? Indian Naval officials dismissed earlier reports of the smoke from the island, saying it was just the natives burning grassland. Except as far as we can see on the recent Landsat imagery, and the 2011high-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the island in Google Maps/Earth, there is no grassland on the island.
- Could this isolated tribe have recently reached the anthropological milestone of experimenting with slash-and-burn agriculture? There is no obvious sign of intentional land clearing on the high-resolution imagery of the island from December 2011.
- Perhaps the fires were accidental, set off by out-of-control campfire. But this appears to be dense tropical jungle without any obvious historical burn scars.
We’re looking into this, including trying to access a global lightning strike database so we can determine if the fire was associated with a brief but intense weather event. But please let us know what you think in the comments below.[March 17, 2014 – 4:00] Since lightning is the most logical explanation for the cause of these fires, we turned to the experts who track lightning strikes around the world. Dr. Robert Holzworth, director of the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) at the University of Washington provided the image below, writing, “it is clear that the lightning pattern at this time involves a band of convective clouds off the west coast of Sumatra extending across the Indian Ocean at that latitude. Therefore, I can say with high confidence that there was no evidence of any lightning within 200 km of N. Sentinel Island.”
Dr. Holzworth looked as far back as March 1, but found no evidence of lightning strikes within 200 km of the island in the week preceding the fire. While he noted that no network can detect every single lightning stroke, there are no significant weather systems in the Bay of Bengal at the time in question. You can read more about the accuracy of their system in the Journal of Oceanic and Atmospheric Technology and see a visualization of the last 30 minutes of lighting strike data at – http://wwlln.net/new/map/.
Don’t forget, you can check out the same imagery we use from the USGS, NASA, and NOAA, and if you are in a position to pass this along to anyone involved in the search effort who might find it interesting, please do so!
Latitude/Longitude Coordinates for North Sentinel Island: 11.563285, 92.236034