Larger objects that stick out of the water will be pushed more rapidly like a sail in the wind, while objects just at or below the surface will be at the mercy of currents.
"What you can be sure is the longer you wait, the more dispersion there will be and the harder it will be to find the impact site," Centurioni said.
In the past few years, scientists have improved their understanding of how the world's oceans circulate like giant conveyor belts. But even with drifting instruments, satellite measurements and shipboard cruises, there are still some places where data remains scanty.
Jose Borrero, a New Zealand-based marine consultant, helped develop one model for the spread of debris across the Pacific Ocean from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.
"From where they find the (airplane) debris now, you can run the model backwards but there is uncertainty in that," he said. "There's a bit of randomness that you put into the drifter models. That would give a zone and use other information to narrow it down. But as time goes by the inaccuracy of that zone is going to get worse and worse."