The first pieces of evidence that Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 crashed into the ocean may come to light when they are washed up on a beach, possibly within weeks, experts said yesterday.
Oceanographers said that currents and prevailing winds would likely push any floating debris towards Australia's vast west coast.
In the event that the huge ongoing Indian Ocean search turns up nothing, small, buoyant items could appear before the wreckage of the plane itself is located.
An assortment of aircraft and ships scouring the ocean some 2,000 kilometres off the coast of Perth have so far found no sign of the missing Boeing 777.
Dr Alec Duncan, an oceanographer from Curtin University in Perth, said: "Prevailing winds are southwesterly, which will push material in the general direction of the coast. However, the search area is a long way offshore, so this could take months."
He said it was also possible that debris could wash up on one of the islands that dot the Indian Ocean.
Oceanographer Erik van Sebille said that if the plane had crashed near Australia there "would be a good chance" something washed up.
A computer-generated model created by Sebille, which tracks ocean rubbish based on historical data, suggests objects floating in the water 1,800 kilometres from Australia will take about six months to reach land.
But he warned that it would be difficult to identify anything that might wash up.
"I don't think we will see many sightings, or people picking up debris from the plane, because it won't be a beach full of plane wreckage," he said.
"There's so much debris in the ocean, if you start to investigate every single piece, the chances of it being from the plane are pretty slim."
Graham Edkins, a former safety investigator with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said it was possible that objects would reach the coast.
"If someone stumbled across wreckage they would be required to call the police in the first instance," he said.
Oceanographer Andrew Kiss described the current in the search zone as turbulent, and said it would spread floating objects in all directions.
He cautioned that even if something from the plane were to wash ashore, it could easily go unnoticed since the 2,600-kilometre west coast of Australia was sparsely populated.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology predicted that for the next seven days, waves would flow in southwestern and northerly directions in the area around the search zone.