UK judges to get scientific guides

Lady Justice at the Old BaileyImage copyright

A UK Supreme Court judge has launched the first of a series of scientific guides for the judiciary.

Lord Hughes has overseen a project to help the judiciary deal with scientific evidence in the courtroom.

The first primers cover DNA fingerprinting and computer techniques to identify suspects from the manner of their walk.

Guides on statistics and the physics of car crashes are to come next and one on “shaken baby syndrome” is planned.

The project is run with the help of The Royal Society and The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In a rare interview, Lord Justice Hughes said he was convinced that the legal primers would be of great benefit.

“Thanks to the link with the two Royal Societies, we have access to top notch scientists who have been prepared to give time voluntarily to answer the questions in the terms that ordinary judges are asking them,” he told BBC News.

“I would like to hope that on some occasions the primer has equipped the judge to see better whether the argument that is being advanced on both sides has a proper basis in science or not”.

Complex topics

The primers are short documents, between 30 and 60 pages long.

They give judges the answers to the questions that they themselves have asked about scientific evidence they have to deal with in the court room.

They cover complex topics but are written clearly and without any jargon to enable judges to grasp the key issues from a legal perspective.

They are produced by scientists who are the foremost experts in the topics covered by the primers. For example the DNA fingerprinting guide has one of the technique’s inventors, Prof Sir Alec Jeffreys, and Nobel Prize winner Prof Sir Paul Nurse on the editorial board.

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Prof Alec Jeffreys is on the editorial board of the forensics report for judges

The guides also cover the limitations of the science and possible difficulties with its interpretation in real life situations.

Accessible science

The DNA fingerprinting primer is on a field in which experts are in agreement on the science.

Its focus, therefore, is on assessing its admissibility in light of the way the material has been gathered and the weight of evidence to be placed on the results.

The assessment of walking patterns stems from an increasing use of video evidence from the crime scene where it is not possible to see the perpetrators face. Police have resorted to so-called gait analysis where the suspect is filmed walking and computer techniques are used to compare their movement with that on the crime scene footage.

The gait analysis primer concludes that there is a lack of credible research to rely on the technique on its own in court.

The study finds that there is no evidence to support the assertion that the way people walk is unique, there has been no assessment of the analysis of the methods used and there are no qualifications for those claiming that they are experts on gait analysis.

The legal primers project is the initiative of Dr Julie Maxton, executive director of the Royal Society.

“We are very pleased to be building on this piece of work and playing a leading role in bringing together scientists and the judiciary throughout the UK to ensure that we get the best possible scientific guidance into the courts – rigorous, accessible science matters to the justice system and society.”

The board which commissions the primers has three judges on it, each from a different court. They are Lord Justice Hughes from the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Rafferty from the Court of Appeal and His Honour Mark Wall, QC, representing criminal trials judges.

Judge Wall told BBC News he believed that the documents would make court rooms more efficient.

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Supreme Court

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Supreme Court Justice Lord Anthony Hughes convinced primers will be of “great benefit”.

“The emphasis nowadays is for courts to be more proactive to actually challenge the prosecution for example and say ‘why is this report admissible? How is it going to help you? Is it really the right report for the issues in this case?

“And the primer, I’m confident will enable a judge in advance of the hearing to read up on the science to a reliable overview of the state of the science and then ask the right questions.

“And so that evidence which is not helpful is excluded and evidence which is helpful is presented in a way which a jury will understand and which will advance the understanding of the issues in the case generally.”


Scientific evidence in the court room came into sharp focus during cases of so-called shaken baby syndrome. Parents and carers were accused of killing babies by shaking them. At the time, expert witnesses would testify that the babies’ injuries could only have been caused by violent shaking. But later other experts put forward alternative explanations for the trauma. The science was and still is far from settled.

Judges have asked for a primer to guide them, but according to Judge Wall it is too soon because there is as yet no consensus.

“What a primer can do is to study the body of scientific evidence in any particular area and where there is agreement as to what the limits of that science are at a particular time to define for a judge what the limits are,” he explained.

“The problem we may face if and when we come to deal with shaken baby syndrome and the science surrounding that is that the experts themselves at the moment don’t seem to be agreed as to where the boundary is to be drawn.

“I don’t think we should underestimate how difficult that is when the scientists themselves are seemingly poles apart on where the science stands.”

According to Lord Hughes, the aim of the primers is not to do away with expert evidence where there is scientific disagreement.

“The primers are about the common ground they’re not about resolving the cutting edge of the limits of science”.

The guides have been produced with the help of Prof Charles Godfray and Prof Angela McLean of Oxford University who have worked on a related project to provide evidence summaries for civil servants and ministers to help them on policy issues.

Prof Godfray said that the judges absorbed the information in the primers “like sponges”.

“We’ve found the judges are really hungry to find out more about the underlying science and being judges they have a fabulous capacity to master a brief very quickly.

“This is what judges do day in and day out; to a certain extent civil servants and ministers have the same capacity but maybe not quite as developed as in the judiciary”.

Shoeprint at scene

The need for a statistics primer is highlighted by a case in of a convicted killer, called “T”, for legal reasons.

It was heard by the court of appeal in 2010. The issue focused on the use of a mathematical technique called “Bayesian analysis”. This is a technique used by statisticians to calculate the likelihood of an event based on the probabilities of other related events.

In this case a shoeprint left at the crime scene matched a pair found in T’s house. It was a common brand of trainers but taking into account the size of the shoe, how the sole had been worn down and the damage to it it was possible to significantly increase the probability the print came from the shoe found in T’s flat.

But the judge rejected the argument on the basis that there were no accurate sales figures for the brand of shoe and so an accurate probability could not be calculated. The conviction was quashed. Moreover he ruled that Bayesian analysis should not be used in court unless the statistics were “firm”.

Statisticians, however, believe that a rough estimate is still a useful guide.

Another area of uncertainty is how much weight to place on neuroscience evidence which is being presented in courtrooms as mitigation for violent crimes.

Specifically, some defence teams have been allowed to argue that the defendant has a version of a gene, called MAOA, that is associated with psychiatric disorders, implying that their client was not able to control their actions.

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How dinosaur scales became bird feathers

Egret on AlligatorImage copyright
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Birds and alligators are closely related, both belonging to the Archosaur group

The genes that caused scales to become feathers in the early ancestors of birds have been found by US scientists.

By expressing these genes in embryo alligator skin, the researchers caused the reptiles’ scales to change in a way that may be similar to how the earliest feathers evolved.

Feathers are highly complex natural structures and they’re key to the success of birds.

But they initially evolved in dinosaurs, birds’ extinct ancestors.

Leading the study, Professor Cheng-Ming Choung told the BBC that this discovery links important recent palaeontological finds with modern biology, in understanding feather evolution.

Birds have had feathers for as long as they have existed as a group and Professor Choung couldn’t study primitive examples of feathers in any living animals.

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Science Photo Library

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Feathers evolved in dinosaurs: birds were a group of dinosaurs that evolved flight and survived the Cretaceous mass extinction

“In today’s existing reptiles, the one more similar to dinosaurs is actually the alligator, belonging to the Archosaur group,” said Prof Choung from the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

Dinosaurs and birds also belong to this wider group of “Archosaur reptiles”; Prof Cheung wanted to investigate whether the feather-forming genes he had identified in birds could change those scales into feathers. So he set out to turn on these genes in the skin of alligator embryos.

“You can see we can indeed induce them to form appendages, although it is not beautiful feathers, they really try to elongate” he explained of the outcome. They are likely similar to the structures on those feather-pioneering dinosaurs 150 million years ago.

The reason the gene doesn’t cause the development of a fully feathered alligator is that unlike birds, alligators don’t have the underlying genetic architecture evolved to support these central feather-making genes, or hold the structures in place on the skin.

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Normal embryonic scales (L) compared with the elongated scales after genetic modification (R)

But the team’s research does provide evidence for how early dinosaurs initiated the development of feathers.

In recent years, palaeontologists have found evidence of “proto feathers” in a huge range of different dinosaur species.

“Feathered dinosaurs have unusual so called proto-feathers… it looks like they have feathers but the feathers are not identical to today’s (bird) feathers.”

Some of these were very simple structures, without the branching complexity seen in birds today. We now know that many dinosaurs were warm blooded like birds and mammals, this meant that they could save energy by holding onto heat produced in their bodies. Scales are not good at this, and so there was a selective pressure to develop something like fur.

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Getty Images

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Feathers are highly complex natural structures

As with mammalian fur, the early single-shafted feather growths prevented heat being conveyed away from the body in the air. But unlike fur, proto-feathers became more complex over evolutionary time, branching off with side veins and barbs, and developing extraordinary colours.

Today, feathers are phenomenally useful to birds, and not just because they allow flight.

Alongside the strong asymmetrical flight feathers, there are fluffy downy feathers that keep the animals warm, but in many birds, there are also feathers that grow continuously and break down into a powder that waterproofs the other feathers to keep them dry and buoyant. In others, long wire-like feathers grow like whiskers all over the body and feedback information about air-flow in the sky.

Many of these extraordinary feather structures had already developed in their late ancestor dinosaurs. This was necessarily the case, because the complex, strong, asymmetrical feathers that are necessary for powered or even gliding flight in birds, existed at in the very first known bird ancestor, archaeopteryx, and all modern birds descended from a flying ancestor.

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Getty Images

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A diverse range of feathers enable birds to exploit different roles from attracting mates, to hovering or floating

But flight was just one highly successful experiment with feathers.

Modern feathers involve a range of different genes working together and being expressed at the right time and in the right space during the embryo’s development. This new work helps to establish how feathers initially evolved, around 120 to 150 million years ago, but hints at five separate genetic processes active in birds that needed to work together to create modern feathers.

“In human evolution the great achievement is the brain, in birds it is the feathers,” says Prof Choung. Today his research is opening the door to understand how such a great achievement came about.

There are practical implications of Prof Choung’s work. His team is working with plastic surgeons to help understand why skin structures don’t develop well on scar tissue.

This research informs our understanding of the process of how skin creates the structures that interact with the outside environment. With a better understanding of this, regenerative therapies could help people get better after accidents.

The study is published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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Seeds hold hidden treasures for future food

Seed vault at Millennium Seed BankImage copyright
Wolfgang Stuppy

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Seed vault at the Millennium Seed Bank

More than 70,000 of the world’s most precious seeds have been sent from the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank to the Middle East, in its largest export to date.

The consignment contains more than 50 wild relatives of cultivated crops, such as wheat, barley and lentils.

The seeds will be used for food security research at a seed bank in Lebanon, which is recreating collections stranded in Syria.

The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew is the world’s largest wild plant seed bank.

Seeds from the resilient, wild cousins of modern food crops are being collected and stored in an international effort.

The aim is to breed new crop varieties capable of withstanding threats such as climate change, drought, pests and diseases.

”The real importance of these crop wild relatives is that in order to survive in the world they’ve had to adapt to hostile environmental changes,” said Oriole Wagstaff of the Crop Wild Relatives project at Kew’s botanic garden at Wakehurst in Sussex.

”With increasing pressures such as pests, diseases and climate change, we need to turn to these wild relatives, which have a much greater genetic diversity.”

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Rossi Graziano

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Faba bean relative from Italy

The seeds have been removed from stores at the Millennium Seed Bank and sent to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), in Lebanon.

They include a wild wheat from Italy, a wild lentil plant from Cyprus, as well as wild relatives of the grass pea and faba bean.

At Icarda, the seeds will be used for research into improving their domesticated relatives against current and future threats such as climate change.

Hidden treasures

Scientists at Icarda are re-building what was once the largest collection of seeds from across the region, including thousands of varieties of wheat, barley, lentils and fava (broadbean).

These were kept at their former headquarters in Aleppo, where they are currently out of reach.

Back-up samples held at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep inside a mountain in Norway, have helped to recreate the seed bank.

The seeds from Kew will give researchers access to precious material from wild crops, enabling the genes of living crops to be compared with their wild ”cousins”.

”These wild ones contain hidden treasures that might one day solve the threats crops are facing at the moment,” Oriole Wagstaff added.

The Crop Wild Relatives project is a global scheme that aims to collect, conserve and utilise the genetic diversity in the wild relatives of our domesticated crops to secure and improve food crops for the future.

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Angelos Kyratzis

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Grass pea relative from Cyprus: Grass pea is cultivated mainly for its edible seeds which are typically consumed in sauces and soups

It aims to:

  • Identify where the wild relatives are found, which can be anywhere from the top of a mountain to an arid desert
  • Collect them
  • Safeguard them in the world’s seed banks
  • Share them under internationally agreed terms
  • Start to use them to improve the varieties that we grow today.

The seeds exported were collected from partners in Italy, Georgia, Cyprus, Portugal, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

This work is supported by the government of Norway and managed by the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and implemented in partnership with national and international gene banks and plant breeding institutes around the world.

All material collected within the project is available under the terms of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) within the framework of the multi-lateral system, as established under the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

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Floods: How can you save your life when disaster strikes?

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Albatrosses hit by fishing and climate

Wandering albatrossesImage copyright

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There are about 700 breeding pairs of wandering albatrosses on Bird Island

The spectacular wandering albatrosses in Sunday’s Blue Planet programme on the BBC have suffered a major decline in numbers over the past three decades.

New research suggests breeding pairs of this species are now little more than half what they were in the 1980s.

Scientists say the losses are the result of careless fishing practices and climate pressures.

The researchers are affiliated to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which organised the filming for the TV show.

BAS has been running a long-term tagging and monitoring study on Bird Island, a 4km-long stretch of land on the western fringes of South Georgia in the South Atlantic.

The animals’ global population is spread across only a handful of sub-Antarctic territories.

The wandering albatrosses are not the only species, though, to experience a slump.

Black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses have followed a similar trend.

“These populations have all declined over the period we’ve been monitoring them,” said BAS expert Richard Phillips.

“There have been different phases, so for the wandering albatrosses there was a gradual decline and then it got really steep before things slowed up. Some of the variability is down to a changing environment; some of it is down to fishing effort.”

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Albatrosses will often try to take the bait on longline fishing gear. They get snagged on the hooks, are pulled under the water and are drowned.

In the immediate vicinity of South Georgia, toothfish trawlers have modified the way they put their lines out to limit this collateral damage, but the birds forage over thousands of square km and will often encounter vessels that still do not use the most sensitive fishing methods.

And sometimes, shifts in climate can drive the birds towards this danger, says Dr Deborah Pardo, the lead author on the new research.

“We also found the grey-headed albatross population was particularly affected by the climatic event of El Niño, which coincided with increased fishing activity in their foraging areas.

“El Niño reduced the amount of food available so the birds probably switched to feeding on discards behind fishing vessels, increasing the number being hooked on longlines.”

Not all climate effects are negative. The recent increasing trend towards stronger poleward winds actually benefits the wandering albatrosses.

“Such winds make their flight more efficient,” Dr Phillips told BBC News. “They can fly faster. Essentially, these winds make the cost of travel cheaper for them.”

Sunday’s programme considered the breeding outcomes for elderly pairs of wandering albatrosses.

Separate BAS research has established that the very last chicks these senior albatrosses produce will often succeed and flourish.

Dr Phillips explained: “There’s a theoretical prediction that if a bird is about to die then it might put more effort into rearing the last chick, or the alternative is the very fact that it has reared that chick has a cost – there’s a cost of reproduction – and subsequently the bird won’t recover and it will die for that reason.”

Currently on Bird Island there are roughly 700 pairs of wandering albatrosses, 3,000 pairs of grey-headed albatrosses and 7,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses. The longterm study detailing the falls in population is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Bizarre shape of interstellar asteroid

'OumuamuaImage copyright
ESO/M. Kornmesser

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Artwork: ‘Oumuamua is now fading from the view of telescopes

An asteroid that visited us from interstellar space is one of the most elongated cosmic objects known to science, a study has shown.

Discovered on 19 October, the object’s speed and trajectory strongly suggested it originated in a planetary system around another star.

Astronomers have been scrambling to observe the unique space rock, known as ‘Oumuamua, before it fades from view.

Their results so far suggest it is at least 10 times longer than it is wide.

That ratio is more extreme than that of any asteroid or comet ever observed in our Solar System.

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Using observations from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, Karen Meech, from the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Hawaii, and colleagues determined that the object was about 400m long, rapidly rotating and subject to dramatic changes in brightness.

These changes in brightness were the clue to ‘Oumuamua’s bizarre shape.

“Looking at the asteroid light curve database, there are five objects (out of 20,000) that have light curves that would suggest a shape up to an axis ratio of about 7-8 to 1,” Dr Meech told BBC News.

“Our errors are very small, so we are confident this is really elongated. Also, one has to realise we don’t know where the rotation pole is pointed. We assumed that it was perpendicular to the line of sight. If it were tipped over at all, then there are projection effects and the 10:1 is a minimum. It could be more elongated!”

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The object’s velocity and eccentric trajectory suggests it originated outside our Solar System

But in other respects, ‘Oumuamua (pronounced oh MOO-uh MOO-uh), appears to resemble objects we know from closer to home.

“We also found that it had a reddish colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it,” Dr Meech said.

These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over long periods of time.

Although ‘Oumuamua formed around another star, scientists think it could have been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our Solar System.

“For decades we’ve theorised that such interstellar objects are out there, and now – for the first time – we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for Nasa’s science mission directorate in Washington DC.

“This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

If planets form around other stars the same way they did in the Solar System, many objects the size of ‘Oumuamua should get slung out into space. The interstellar visitor may provide the first evidence of that process.

Image copyright
ESO/F. Kamphues

Image caption

The Very Large Telescope in Chile was used for observations

As regards how ‘Oumuamua became so elongated, Dr Meech explained: “There has been speculation among various team members about this. Sometimes very elongated objects are contact binaries… but even so, the pieces would be longer than most things in the Solar System, and our analysis shows that it is rotating fast enough that they should not stay together.

“One of our team wondered if, during a planetary system formation, if there was a large collision between bodies that had molten cores, some material could get ejected out and then freeze in an elongated shape.

“Another team member was wondering if there could be some process during the ejection – say if there was a nearby supernova explosion that could be responsible.”

The cosmic interloper was discovered by Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Astronomy and a co-author of the new study, which is published in Nature journal.

Weryk and fellow Institute for Astronomy researcher Marco Micheli realised it was going extremely fast (with enough speed to avoid being captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull) and was on a very eccentric trajectory taking it out of our Solar System.

The asteroid’s name, ‘Oumuamua, means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.

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Bosnia’s silent killer: The coal industry

After the US decision to quit the Paris climate agreement, the European Union set its sights on becoming a global leader in curbing fossil fuel emissions.

But some of its eastern neighbours that seek to join the bloc have severe levels of air pollution.

Many people are switching back to coal as a cheaper alternative to imported gas from Russia.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the high level of air pollution has become a cause for alarm for the locals.

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European memory champion reveals winning trick

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Antarctic glacier’s rough belly exposed

Media captionThis movie illustrates the rough terrain underlying some parts of the PIG

The melting Antarctic ice stream that is currently adding most to sea-level rise may be more resilient to change than previously recognised.

New radar images reveal the mighty Pine Island Glacier (PIG) to be sitting on a rugged rock bed populated by big hills, tall cliffs and deep scour marks.

Such features are likely to slow the ice body’s retreat as the climate warms, researchers say.

The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

“We’ve imaged the shape of the bed at a smaller scale than ever before and the message is really quite profound for the ice flow and potentially for the retreat of the glacier,” said lead author Dr Rob Bingham from Edinburgh University.

“Where the bed is flat – that’s where we will see major retreat. But where we see these large hills and these other rough features – that’s where we may see the retreat slowed if not stemmed,” he told BBC News.

Image copyright
Damon Davies

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For weeks, the team dragged radar equipment across the glacier surface

The PIG is a vast feature in West Antarctica.

The glacier runs alongside the Hudson mountains into the Amundsen Sea, draining an area covering more than 160,000 sq km – about two-thirds the size of the UK.

Its remoteness makes it extremely difficult to study, and it is only in the past 20 years or so, with the aid of satellites, that scientists have realised the glacier is undergoing significant change.

The PIG has sped up and thinned as warmer ocean waters have got under its floating front to melt the ice from below.

The grounding line – the point where this front starts to become buoyant – has pulled back towards the land by more than 30km since the early 1990s, leading some researchers to believe the whole glacier could collapse within a few hundred years if global warming accelerates matters.

But to have real confidence in modelling its future behaviour, scientists need to know far more about the PIG.

In particular, they need to understand better the type of ground over which the ice is sliding.

It is this type of data that is now being reported by the British team, who dragged radar instruments over the glacier in a weeks-long campaign in the southern summer of 2013/14.

Radar can see through hundreds of metres of ice to sense the topography at the base of the glacier. And although the expedition could not map the PIG’s full extent, sampling was done at key places on the main flowing trunk and the major tributaries. A total of 1,500 sq km was imaged.

What was expected was that the basal rock would show lineations from the scouring effects of ice that has been moving across it for millions of years.

What was unexpected though was the scale of the relief seen in a number of areas.

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The classic lineations ground by flowing ice are evident both at the base of the PIG and around the city of Edinburgh. But surprisingly, the glacier’s bed has examples of very jagged terrain even though the ice has been passing across it for millions of years.

To illustrate this roughness, the team has produced a comparison of the PIG’s underbelly with the glacial terrain surrounding Edinburgh.

The Scottish capital was itself covered by an ice sheet 20,000 years ago.

The famous elevations of Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock look puny next to some of the jagged features underlying the PIG.

“In one place at the bed of Pine Island, the ice mounts a cliff that’s almost vertical and some 400m high,” explained Dr Bingham.

“This would be a totally incredible feature if you could stand in front of it and see it for yourself. But it’s buried deep under the ice. At the surface of the glacier, of course, you wouldn’t even know that it’s down there because the top of the PIG is so flat.”

Image copyright
Anna Hogg

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The surface of the PIG may be flat but the radar technology senses the hidden topography

The Edinburgh scientist believes the rock under the glacier must be extremely hard to have retained such roughness.

Co-author Prof David Vaughan, from the British Antarctic Survey, says the new information will now bring greater refinement to ice models.

“The extra roughness beneath Pine Island Glacier is significant because at the moment we model the glacier in a way that puts everything we know about the bed into a single parameter which we ‘infer’.

“This research begins the process of measuring those bed properties in a much more correct and more robust way,” he told BBC News.

The PIG research was conducted under a programme called iSTAR. A similar effort will now target the “next door” Thwaites Glacier. This also is shedding billions of tonnes of ice each year that contribute to rising sea levels.

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Based on the BBC’s The Inquiry – a programme that goes beyond the headlines

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