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When an object or person goes missing at sea, the complex, constantly changing conditions of the ocean can confound and delay critical search-and-rescue operations. Search and rescue teams combing the oceans today rely on models of ocean dynamics and weather forecasts to determine the best areas to focus their attention. But this is far from a perfect strategy, with the unpredictability of the ocean currents often leading the subject of the search along different paths to those originally predicted.

Now researchers have developed a technique that they hope will help first responders quickly zero in on regions of the sea where missing objects or people are likely to be. “This method uses data in a way that it hasn’t been used before, so it provides first responders with a new perspective.”

The team from MIT, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Virginia Tech has developed a new algorithm that analyzes ocean conditions such as the strength and direction of ocean currents, surface winds, and waves, and identifies in real-time the most attracting regions of the ocean where floating objects are likely to converge, according to news.mit.edu.

The innovative technique was demonstrated in several field experiments in which the researchers deployed drifters and human-shaped manikins in various locations in the ocean. They found that over the course of a few hours, the objects migrated to the regions that the algorithm predicted would be strongly attracting, based on the present ocean conditions.

The algorithm can be applied to existing models of ocean conditions in a way that allows rescue teams to quickly uncover hidden “traps” where the ocean may be steering missing people at a given time.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.