Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Search Indian Ocean Australia
Staff at satellite communications company Inmarsat point to a section of the screen showing the southern Indian Ocean, where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is believed to have plunged Reuters

The search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 will be vastly hindered by a chain of active volcanoes under the sea where teams are looking for the wreckage.

Underwater geologist Robin Beaman, from the James Cook University in Australia, said the volcanoes will make the search much more difficult because of the changing landscape beneath the southern Indian Ocean.

"It's very unfortunate if that debris has landed on the active crest area, it will make life more challenging," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"It's rugged, it's covered in faults, fine-scale gullies and ridges, there isn't a lot of sediment blanketing that part of the world because it's fresh [in geological terms]."

Beaman said the giant undersea chain of volcanoes has barely been mapped in detail, meaning any attempt to retrieve the aircraft will require extensive 3D mapping and the use of multibeam echo sounders.

Fastest Growth of Underwater Volcanoes Documented at Monowai
Wreckage thought to be along chain of underwater volcanoes Reuters

This is particularly problematic because Australian experts no longer have the capacity to go beyond depths of three kilometres after the only government vessel capable was decommissioned in December last year.

"It's bad timing really. Australia has no capability of mapping these depths," he said.

"On the flanks of the ridge, which is very likely where any crash zone occurred, there has been virtually no ... mapping apart from the odd strip. It's all going to have to be remapped, there's no doubt."

The last surveys of the area to create a 3D map of the sea floor were conducted 20 years ago, and were only around 10 to 20km wide – making Beaman even less optimistic of finding the plane.

"It'll be very unlikely that debris has fallen in those little 10 to 20-kilometre-wide zones. You're left with gaps of hundreds of kilometres where there is no detailed understanding of what the sea floor terrain looks like."

Australia's prime minister Tony Abbott has said the search will continue until it becomes hopeless: "It is not absolutely open-ended but it is not something we will lightly abandon," he said.