Vanished 

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It now appears "highly, highly likely" that the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 over the Indian Ocean last March was due to a catastrophic drop in air pressure, leading to oxygen starvation and loss of consciousness for all on board. The plane subsequently flew a consistent route for five hours on autopilot before vanishing forever. No one may ever know what the precipitating event was, but one thing we do know is that it's likely human-caused: other than being extremely remote, the region is neither noteworthy nor mysterious when it comes to marine or air disasters; in other words, the Southern Indian Ocean is no Bermuda Triangle. This raises an interesting related point: what's up with the Bermuda Triangle?

Yes, the demonic Bermuda Triangle, supernatural whipping boy for generations of nautical navigators and the subject of innumerable cheesy docudramas, seems itself to have disappeared, vanishing with nary a trace from the radar of popular culture on which it flashed for decades.

A brief refresher: Rising to public prominence during the 1970s on the coat-tail popularity of other planetary enigmas like UFOs and Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, the Bermuda or "Devil's" Triangle is an imaginary area off the southeastern Atlantic coast of the U.S. and noted for a high incidence of unexplained losses of ships, small boats, and aircraft. Prescribed by the points of Bermuda to the north, Miami, Florida to the south, and San Juan, Puerto Rico in the east, survivors of ship and plane mishaps within this area often described bizarre circumstances and meteorological phenomena preceding the events — inexplicable lights, spinning compasses, preternaturally calm seas, sudden dense fogs, virtual walls of water. Distilling this, imaginative folks insisted on speculating that unknown and mysterious forces were at work: extraterrestrials capturing humans for study (a go to); the influence of the lost continent of Atlantis; vortices that sucked objects through a fluctuating "portal" into other dimensions (my fave); and more science-grounded explanations like oceanic flatulence (methane gas erupting from ocean sediments). Despite these many flights of fancy over the years, however, mounting evidence from environmental considerations seemed to more easily explain many, if not most, of the disappearances.

To begin, the unpredictable Caribbean-Atlantic weather pattern clearly played a role; the vast majority of Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes pass through the Bermuda Triangle. Prior to satellite weather forecasting and instant information, these claimed many caught unawares: as sudden thunderstorms and waterspouts often spell disaster for pilots and mariners. In addition, the relatively warm and turbulent Gulf Stream that flows swiftly north here through colder water causes upwellings, eddies and rapid and sometimes violent changes in local weather, as well as quickly erasing any evidence of a disaster. The large number of islands in the Caribbean create shallow-water areas that can be treacherous to ship navigation. The topography of the ocean floor varies from extensive shoals around islands to some of the world's deepest marine trenches; with the interaction of strong currents over reefs, the topography is in a state of constant flux and development of new navigational hazards is swift. Lastly, some evidence suggests the area is one of several places on Earth where geomagnetic flux can cause a compass to point not to magnetic north, but instead towards "true" north, a variation that would contribute to significant navigational error. Human-error, in fact, cannot be underestimated. A large number of pleasure boats travel the waters between Florida's Gold Coast and the Bahamas, with many of these crossings attempted in too small a boat, or with insufficient knowledge and lack of seamanship. The ocean has always been a mysterious place to humans, and when foul weather or poor navigation are added, it can be deadly, something that's true anywhere in the world. On balance, however, even with the area's characteristics considered, there's no evidence that mysterious disappearances occurred with any greater frequency in the Bermuda Triangle than in any other large, well-travelled area of the ocean. For their part, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard both contend there are no supernatural explanations for disasters, and that the combined forces of nature and human fallibility outdo even the most incredulous science fiction. No official maps exist that delineate the boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle and the U. S. Board of Geographic Names neither recognizes it nor maintains an official file on the area.

So what happened to the Bermuda Triangle? A so-called mystery was killed by a litany of rationality — the same thing that befalls most of the mythological black holes of humanity: we learn enough about what's going on to eventually dismiss guesswork, superstition and fantasy.

The mystery, as always, is human and not natural. And that will doubtless prove to be the case with the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight 370. Unfortunately, that could comprise error, technical failure or the real wild card of human mysteries — irrationality.

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