Finding Amelia Earhart: New Expedition Could Solve Decades-Long Mystery

Amerlia Earhart, first woman flying across the ocean
Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra plane. (Image credit: TIGHAR)

The search for Amelia Earhart is on (again).

An organized search party called "The Earhart Project," led by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, also known as TIGHAR (pronounced "tiger"), is in its second week of searching for clues surrounding the mysterious disappearance of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart.

The Earhart Project is testing the hypothesis that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made an emergency landing, and eventually died, on Gardner Island, also called Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the Republic of Kiribati, in the western Pacific Ocean.

The current search expedition is named "Niku VIII" for its eighth trip in search of Earhart and Noonan. The first expedition, the Niku I, set sail in 1989. [See photos of the search for Amelia Earhart]

Earhart and Noonan disappeared during an attempt to fly around the world. The flight got off to a rocky start, after Earhart lost control of her aircraft, the Electra, and it collapsed onto a runway in Hawaii on March 20, 1937. After the Electra was repaired, Earhart and Noonan made their second attempt to circumnavigate the world, taking off from Oakland, California to Tucson, Arizona on May 21 of the same year. Over the course of the next month, Earhart and Noonan flew to Brazil, across the South Atlantic and North Africa. They arrived in Lae, Papua New Guinea on June 29. Their total air time from Oakland was estimated to be 161 hours.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan departed Lae, Papua New Guinea, for Howland Island, an uninhabited island just north of the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 1,700 nautical miles (3,100 km) southwest of Honolulu, on a flight that should have lasted 19 hours. Their arrival was never recorded, and little is known about their final moments. Earhart's disappearance is one of the most enduring mysteries in aviation history.

Niku VIII is sailing on the MS Nai'a, a 120-foot (37 meters) research motorboat that departed June 8 from Figi, an island country in the South Pacific Ocean, on the 24-day expedition. The 14-person team is using a small, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to scour the ocean floor, scuba gear for shallow underwater searches and metal detectors to search for manmade items among the natural.

The ROV can descend more than 1,000 feet (305 m), and is equipped with powerful lights, thrusters and high-definition real-time video, among other features. The ROV team reported setting up the camera on June 14.

On the same day, the crew's five scuba divers saw many fish, but also reported seeing unhealthy, and sometimes dead, corals at depths of around 80 feet (24 m). In deeper waters, reaching around 140 feet (43 m), the reef looked healthy, "with lots of places for bits of airplane wreckage to hang up," the divers recorded in their daily report. The divers plan to focus on this area in the coming days.  

The team's four onshore detectives are searching inland from the beach for remnants of a possible survival camp set up by Earhart and Noonan. The team studied a 1938 aerial photograph from which manmade objects — including a knife that was beaten apart to detach the blade, several broken, partially melted bottles in the remains of a cooking fire and other fire features — were identified. Although the land may have looked quite different more than 70 years ago, the crew hopes that the island's basic landscape has remained relatively unchanged, project officials said.

On June 14, the land team found an uprooted tree, which suggests the area may have been hit by a recent major storm, according to project officials. The investigators also detected new storm ridges and other extensive damage. But their attempts to check the areas identified from the 1938 photo were made more difficult by dense shrubs (scaevola frutescens) that form dried, tangled branches and roots that are hard to remove. One of the crew members flew a drone to take photos of the area to scope out the surroundings, TIGHAR officials said.

The last four days of the Niku VIII expedition will be dedicated to entertaining and enlightening 60 passengers on the "Betchart Expeditions Amelia Earhart Cruise," during which four of TIGHAR's Earhart-savvy crew will teach guests about Earhart's disappearance.

TIGHAR is "a nonprofit foundation dedicated to promoting responsible aviation archaeology and historic preservation," according to the organization's website.

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Elizabeth Goldbaum
Staff Writer
Elizabeth is a staff writer for Live Science. She enjoys learning and writing about natural and health sciences, and is thrilled when she finds an evocative metaphor for an obscure scientific idea. She researched ancient iron formations in China for her Masters of Science degree in Geosciences at the University of California, Riverside, and went on to Columbia Journalism School for a master's degree in journalism, focusing on environmental and science writing.