The Ellsworth High School
Alumni Association

By Jacqueline Weaver, courtesy The Ellsworth American

WINTER HARBOR — Scientist Joseph LaCasce’s specialty is predicting the movement of something that is inherently unpredictable — the ocean.

Ellsworth native Joseph LaCasce has devoted his life to studying ocean currents, which are important in tracking oil spills, radioactive plumes, plane wreckage and in search and rescue missions.

The models he and his colleagues devise are useful in tracking the movement of oil, such as the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; radioactive plumes, such as the 2011 meltdown and explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan; in search and rescue missions, and, more recently, the likely drift pattern of wreckage from the Malaysia Flight 370.

LaCasce, an Ellsworth native who lives in Norway and teaches and conducts research at the University of Oslo, recently organized an international conference of like-minded scientists at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park.

Among the more than 50 scientists at the sixth annual meeting of the Lagrangian Analysis and Prediction of Coastal and Ocean Dynamics group was a colleague who played a role in trying to predict where debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 would surface.

The aircraft mysteriously vanished with 239 people aboard in March 2014 while on a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The defined search area covers 46,000 square miles.

A flaperon — a moveable section of the aircraft wing that helps stabilize the plane during takeoff and landing — last month washed up on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean and it was determined as likely to be from the ill-fated jet.

Victor Jose Garcia Garrido, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Spain, attended the recent Lagrangian group conference.

He said he has been working with his advisor on the possible debris dispersion paths since the plane went missing.

Garrido said he and his advisor developed their work independently from official sources because they did not have any information about the models and techniques the officials were using to define the search areas.

Garrido and his partner ran their dispersion model for the first few months after the accident because they wanted to address the short-term surface search of debris.

Asked about the flaperon found on Réunion, Garrido said the long-term behavior of ocean currents in the Indian Ocean allows for the remote possibility of finding debris near the east coast of Africa.

“That is a really long journey, and it is almost incredible that the flaperon drifted so far,” he said. “Now we are working to perform a back drift to see if we could spot a different potential search area.”

Garrido said the back drift calculation is difficult because of unknown factors and uncertainties, long-term errors inherent in going back 18 months in time and the chaotic behavior of ocean currents.

LaCasce said the applications for the Lagrangian group’s research are far-reaching, which is what appealed to him in the beginning.

As an undergraduate, he majored in physics, but later discovered his real love was oceanography — which he calls “physics in the ocean.”

His wife, Cecilie Mauritzen, also is an oceanographer but conducts her research out in the field. They have two sons.

LaCasce said Lagrangian group scientists amass data based on drifters, which are buoys with transmitters set free in the water.

While the conference was in progress in late July, the group headed out by boat around Mount Desert Island following reports of a red tide bloom. They and the students threw out buoys constructed by students to follow the ocean’s currents.

LaCasce said chaos — chaos in the scientific sense, meaning initial minor fluctuations that can ultimately cause dramatic changes — always comes into the mix.

“Tides come in and go out, so you can predict those 50 years ahead of time, but you can’t fully predict where pollution swept along by the tides will go, just as you can’t predict the weather other than one to two weeks ahead of time,” he said.

LaCasce said this area of study is of particular interest in Norway, where the largest industry is oil drilling — with many massive rigs offshore — followed by fisheries. An out of control spill could easily decimate the fisheries.

On the subject of climate change, LaCasce said there has been a “striking increase” in ocean and atmospheric warming in the last 50 years.

“There is no serious debate anymore about whether this is happening or not,” he said. “The whole system is heating up. The ocean is a big part of it and has a huge capacity for storing heat.”

He said the Eastern United States and Canada experienced an anomaly last winter as the only places on the planet that experienced more cold last winter.

With students in Oslo, LaCasce is studying how a warmer ocean affects weather patterns.