Huge crack in Antarctic Larsen C Ice Shelf signals collapse


Broadcast on Drivetime RTE Radio 1 on 8th May 2017

Crack in Larsen C

A large, widening crack has appeared in the Larsen B Ice Shelf [Credit: British Antarctic Survey]

If a 180 km crack was appearing across continental Europe there may be a sense of public panic. Well, that’s just what is happening across another continent, in Antarctica, where scientists early this year spotted a crack in a lump of floating ice called the Larsen C ice shelf, which is about twice the size of Wales.

A secondary crack, or fork, has now appeared in Larsen C, leaving just 20km of solid ice left preventing it from total collapse. Scientists believe that nothing can now stop the collapse of Larsen C, and when it does break up it will be even more dramatic than the break up of the nearby Larsen B ice shelf in 2002.


In February, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey reported that they had found a large crack, about 180 km – about the distance between Dublin and Galway – in an ice shelf called the Larsen C Ice Shelf.

This crack has been monitored by scientists over the past few months and they have found that it is widening. More recently, a fork has split away from the main crack, and this secondary crack is heading straight for the open ocean.

The continent of Antarctica is famous, among scientists at least, for having several large shelves of ice around its coastline. These ice shelves are huge, floating platforms of ice, which form i the ocean and are fed ice from the continental landmass.

The Larsen C ice shelf is part of the larger Larsen ice shelf, which is one of the largest in Antarctica and has been breaking up now for a number of decades. The Larsen B, ice shelf, which was about the size of Rhode Island, some people may recall, broke away in 2002.

The area is closely watched by scientists interested in climate change because the western side of Antarctica is the fastest warming area of the world, and an indicate of how fast climate change is happening.


The ice shelves of western Antarctica were stable for 10,000 years, and it is only in the last 30 years that they have started to break up.

Scientists are very concerned, as with just 20km of ice for the breakaway fork to travel to get to the sea, the breakup of Larsen C appears to be close. When Larsen C breaks away, it will produce the largest iceberg in history, which will be cleaved off the Larsen ice shelf to float off into the southern ocean around Antarctica.

The fact that ice shelves float in the ocean means they are susceptible to changes in ocean temperature. Scientists know that the temperature of the oceans is heating up, and this heat is being transferred, they believe, to the bottom of ice shelves, which can make the ice unstable, fracture and break.

There have been cycles of ice shelves forming, and breaking away throughout Earth’s history, with repeated cycles of warming and cooling. At one point, for example, during the last ice age a large ice sheet existed off the west coast of Ireland.

What is worrying scientists is that the current fracture of Larsen C is mimicking the processes that led to the breakup of Larsen A and B. In those cases there was destabilisation of the front of the ice shelf, where the ice cliffs – as big as the cliffs of moher – meet the open water.

Scientists, like Dr Paul Dunlop, who has studied glaciers, and is based at the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Ulster University, Coleraine, is worried that what’s happening could be a sign of something bigger, and far more serious.

Another worry is that if the Larsen ice shelf breaks away that this will expose land based glaciers to the open ocean, meaning they will melt faster.

At the moment, the ice shelves in the western Antarctica are acting like a buffer between the glaciers and the sea, but if that goes, it may be something akin to pulling the plug out of a bath.


It tells us that the waters underneath the ice shelves in the western Antarctica are warming. That is worrying because the deep waters around Antarctica were considered to be the last ocean locations to experience global warming, but that now appears to be happening, as deep cold water, cycles up and is warmed.

There will still be climate deniers that will say that the breakup of Larsen C is simply part of a cycle of the formation and breakup of ice shelves that has gone on for millions of years, and that it is not linked to climate change. However, this view is simply that and it is not remotely credible to climate scientists.

Climate scientists believe that the deep ocean waters around Antarctica are starting to warm and that is the source of the problem. This is part of a pattern going in recent decades not just in Antarctic, but around the world,  with Alpine and Himalayan glaciers retreating and the Greenland ice sheet thinning for example.


Earlier this year, a British scientific team had been on the Larsen C ice shelf, surveying the seafloor beneath. The information they gathered, and other data, suggested that a break up was likely, so they decided not to set up camp on the ice as would be normal practice. Instead, they made one-off airplane trips from the UK’s Rothera Research Station, as it was considered too dangerous to stay.

It’s getting pretty dangerous for scientists on Antarctica, especially those working on the ice shelves around the continent. In January, the Halley VI British Antarctic Station was shifted – on skis – to a safe remove on health and safety grounds as a result of a crack in the Brunt Ice Shelf that was growing in size just to the north of their futuristic modular facility. The designers deliberately designed the base so that it would sit on stilts with skis and could be moved if required.

Dr Louise Allock, senior lecturer in Zoology at NUI Galway has visited Antarctica for her research into octopuses, corals and sea pens many times over the last 15 to 20 years, and was on a research vessel in the southern ocean off Antarctica when the Larsen B shelf dramatically collapsed in 2002.

She told me what scientists will be watching closely – as the Larsen C collapses – so see whether this has the potential to cause large scale ice shelf collapse.

TCD surging ahead of Dublin rivals UCD rivals on basic research

UCD you’ve got a problem!

I realised the extent of UCD’s problem after I put in a request this morning to the European Research Council (ERC) for a list of Irish holders of their coveted advanced grants.

[It’s well known when you have one of these, which are awarded for excellence in fundamental science, you have arrived at the top table of European researchers].

In an email back from the ERC, they confirmed that TCD has six of these grants, and UCD has zippo. Ireland in total has eight, so it’s not just UCD that is failing, but as the biggest university in the country, with a long tradition of science and engineering, it’s UCD’s failure that stands out most.

The TCD monopoly on ERC advanced grants is  broken by a single grant holder at Maynooth University and one at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

It’s 6-nil then to TCD in this scientific ‘colours’ match.

It is remarkable however,  given the ferocious hostility to fundamental science that exists in Ireland, that anyone here got an ERC advanced grant.

So, like the heroes of 1916, let’s Proclaim Ireland’s scientific heroes here.

These are the men (there are no women) who have, somehow, manage to thrive in this scientific desert.

  • Thomas Ray, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
  • Robert Kitchin, Maynooth University
  • John Boland, TCD
  • Luke O’Neill, TCD
  • Jonathan Coleman, TCD
  • Dan Bradley, TCD
  • Paul Holm, TCD
  • Peter Humphries TCD

Tribute to my father, Prof E J Duke

As part of a series of tributes to my father, Professor Edward J Duke (Head of the Department of Zoology UCD , 1979 to 2002) , who passed away last month, I’m putting up his first significant scientific publication here.

He achieved so much in his life, and science was only one small part of that.

Yet, this might be of interest to those who knew ‘Eamonn’ in his professional capacity as a scientist. It was published as part of the ‘Letters to Nature’ on the 9th January 1963, when he was just 23 years of age, and a doctoral student in Queen’s University Belfast.

Thank you to Kay Nolan and Tom Bolger, former UCD colleagues for finding this for me.

New diagnostic test developed at UCD targets aggressive prostate cancer


This article was published in The Medical Independent on the 17th April 2017


The AI robot doctor will see you now

My doctor is an algorithm: ‘Medicine has always welcomed new technology’

With the advance of artificial intelligence, medical practises are being overtaken. Could the GP become a relic of a bygone age

Just what the doctor ordered: Baymax, an inflatable healthcare companion with a big 'heart', gives his young charge, Hiro, a lollipop in the children's animated movie, Big Hero Six
Just what the doctor ordered: Baymax, an inflatable healthcare companion with a big ‘heart’, gives his young charge, Hiro, a lollipop in the children’s animated movie, Big Hero Six

Seán Duke

April 13 2017 2:30 AM

‘Good afternoon, the AI will see you now.” This could be the future of family practice medicine as machines become better equipped to do many of the things that traditionally made up the GP’s job description.

Machines have always threatened human jobs, but up to the 21st century they were only a serious threat to repetitive, low-skilled jobs. Times have changed and the higher skilled jobs today are threatened by the advance of artificial intelligence (AI). In the past few years, intelligent machines have begun to perform complex tasks far better and quicker than intelligent, skilled humans.

The ‘good GP’ we know will always know his patients well; their medical history, their personality, details about their family and their foibles, and will retain this background information and call on it when assessing patients. The good GP would know, for example, that Mr Murphy is probably upset, rather than clinically depressed, because his father died last week and he has no depression history.

However, unlike the good GP, who may be overworked, and stressed by the demands of a busy clinic, computers with built-in AI have an almost unlimited capacity to store information in medical records, and to recognise patterns that may have been missed by the GP. They are also excellent at measuring things, such as blood pressure, and analysing results, such as a routine blood test.

In recent years, scientists working in AI made a breakthrough when they developed software based on the working of the human brain, rather than, as was the case before, sticking to a rigid rule book. This software could learn from the environment, making mistakes, and correcting them, like a child learns. The world saw its first artificial ‘self-learning systems’.

There were implications from this for the GP, and other professionals, as suddenly it wasn’t just the old story of machines replacing low-skilled workers; their jobs were on the line too. GPs faced the prospect of being confined to a decreasing number of areas where they are still superior to artificial rivals, or worse still, to become redundant; a charming medical relic of a bygone age.

The role of specialist medical consultants – not just GPs – is also coming under threat too from sophisticated ‘deep learning systems’ which are already outperforming doctors in specialised areas of medicine, says Professor Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at the Department of Computer Science, in University College Cork, and a leading AI researcher.

“Dermatology is one such field,” he says. “A very recent paper that appeared in (research journal) Nature showed that a deep learning system could outperform human dermatologists at identifying skin cancer by quite a margin.”

Another area where AI is already better than doctors is radiology, adds O’Sullivan. A radiologist can recognise patterns in scans, based on years of experience. However, no matter how experienced the radiologist, he can’t store the amount of scans that AI can, while comparing them to a particular scan in order to assess, for example, the likelihood of a stroke or epilepsy. Meanwhile, there are further reasons for GPs not to be cheerful about the future with plans in the UK, supported by the NHS, to use smartphones to bypass the GP clinic altogether. A pilot scheme, run by private firm Babylon Health is encouraging people to consult a ‘chatbot’, equipped with AI, rather than a human being when they contact the 111 non-emergency line.

Patients key in symptoms, and AI determines how urgent each case is, and whether the user should be told to go straight to A&E, the chemist or simply go home to bed. The AI system makes decisions based on 300 million pieces of information, and the company says trials have shown the system is faster and more accurate than doctors. Certainly, most experts agree the future of medicine is ‘personalised medicine’, with disease treatments being tailored to suit personal needs. This is an area that AI excels, as it is very good at looking at medical data and finding specific treatments for patients which can, in some cases, even save their lives.

“For example, organisations such as Cancer Commons have assisted cancer patients survive conditions that were regarded as fatal in their situations by combining AI with extremely rich and individual-level data,” says Prof O’Sullivan. “The founder of Cancer Commons, Marty Tenenbaum, is one such survivor.”

Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, says: “Computers and electronic diagnostic aids are delivering more and more information every year in medicine. And it is likely that computers and other devices, with their essentially infinite data storage and pattern recognition abilities, will continue to add increasing value to medical care.

He adds: “AI is especially useful in diagnosis: recognising skin lesions, monitoring measurable indices of body function, and identifying known patterns of symptoms and signs.

“It is less useful for other dimensions of medical care: contextualising findings in the context of the patient’s life, moving from recognising a pattern to agreeing a narrative between doctor and patient, and providing reassurance.

“AI is also less useful for picking up on the unexpected elements in a patient’s presentation: noting, for example, that a patient presenting with a lesion on his ear also has swollen ankles. Or noticing that someone with chest pain smells strongly of alcohol at 11 in the morning and might have an alcohol problem (which might or might not be related to the chest pain). Or noticing that a woman who comes to have a prescription renewed brings along her child, whom the nurse remembers has missed a vaccination, and can receive it today.”

Kelly isn’t worried about his job just yet though.

“Medicine has always welcomed new technologies and benefited hugely from them: stethoscopes, x-ray machines, MRI. But these tools amplify the effectiveness of healthcare professionals, rather than replacing them.”

The doctor will still see you now


Dr Mark Murphy, GP, and chair of Communications with the Irish College of General Practitioners, responds:

“It is unlikely that AI will make a meaningful difference in the GP setting, given the significant human factors at play in a consultation.

“There is a requirement for the GP to conduct face-to-face consultation to develop a rapport, to physically examine a patient and read nonverbal cues.”

“AI systems cannot get rid of the complex uncertainty and greyness at the heart of the undifferentiated presentations to General Practice.

“However, AI and machine learning will help with the handling of information in the healthcare system, and may be able to assist with complicated ‘black and white’ diagnostic process, such as imaging or to make sense of the complex genomic factors with rare-disease treatment.”

Irish Independent

The History of the Search for ET life – so far

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek California is set up to search for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (Image source: Sky & Telescope)


For millions of years – as long as humans have existed and gazed upwards –  people will have questioned are we alone in the Universe? Yet, it is only in the past 60 years or so, with rapid technological advances, that it has become possible to make serious attempts to answer that age-old question.

Listen to interview with Myles Dungan on The History Show, RTE Radio 1 (broadcast 2/04/17)


The ancient Greeks, the foundation stone upon which much of our western way of life today has been built, were the first, in the west at least, to consider the possibility that the Universe was infinite and that it contained an infinite number of civilisations.

The arrival in the 16th century of the Copernican model of our Solar System, where the Earth revolved around the Sun, impacted on our thoughts of ET life too.

This radical science, which place the Sun at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth, implied that our planet was not perhaps as important as we had thought.

If Earth was just one planet of several orbiting the Sun, and not at the centre of everything, then why could there not be life, like us, on other similar planets?

This, of course, caused complications for some established religions, as if there was life, like us, on other planets, then had Jesus come down to save them too?

There things stood, with lots of questions, but no ability to answer them, for several centuries until the second half of the twentieth century.


In the 1950s, at the height of Cold War paranoia, the number of reported sightings of UFOs increased dramatically across the United States.

In 1959, two young scientists at Cornell University decided to try and take a serious scientific look at how mankind might try to tune in to alien communications.

The paper appeared in Nature, one of the world’s top scientific journals, and it was called ‘Searching for Interstellar Communications’.

This paper changed everything because it established the scientific principles by which scientists might try to find, and listen in to alien communications, if they existed.

The authors, Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison were both physicists based at Cornell University in upstate New York. They said that the possibility of extra-terrestrial ‘intelligent’ life couldn’t be determined, or ruled in or out. However, given that mankind evolved it was likely that other intelligent creatures evolved too, on planets near a Sun. Some of these civilisations might, the authors said, be more advanced than our own and may want to contact us and other intelligent beings that resided on planets – like them – close to a warm Star.

The two physicists considered how intelligent extra-terrestrials might make contact with us, and decided that electromagnetic waves, which travel at the speed of light and are not easily knocked off course, would be the most logical way to transmit a message.

Furthermore, they decided that the most likely frequency the aliens would broadcast on would be 1,420 megahertz as that is the ‘emission frequency’ of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe. This is the frequency of the radio wave emissions given off when an atom in an element, in this case hydrogen, is given off as the element moves from a high energy atomic configuration into a lower energy configuration.

The aliens, the logic went, would chose this frequency because they knew other intelligent beings would also understand its importance and tune in accordingly.


The paper inspired a now-famous astronomer called Frank Drake to perform the first scientific experiment to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. That was 1960.

Drake, is still alive, aged 86, and an active astronomer, and considered the Father of SETI the Search for Extra-terrestrial life, and the SETI Institute in the USA.

Drake pointed a radio telescope at two ‘nearby’ stars called Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani to see whether there was anything being broadcast from planets orbiting these Sun-like bodies in the hydrogen emission frequency from that location. There wasn’t.

Today, the SETI Institute, based in Northern California, has access to a $30 million array of telescopes, funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. It has a permanent staff of scientists, and is supported by donations and computer power by SETI enthusiasts all over the world. It is not reliant on US taxpayers’ support.

Drake, apart from founding SETI, is also famous for producing something called the Drake equation along with Carl Sagan, to predict how many civilisations there might be in the Universe, based on known parameters.

In 1961, when the Drake equations was first produced, it predicted there was from 1,000 to one billion such civilisations, and the range was down to the fact that the parameters were nebulous.

The Drake equation has become more accurate over the years, based on better knowledge of parameters such as how often Sun-like Stars form, and how many of these stars have planets. But we still don’t know how precisely life begins, even on Earth, or what fraction of life will evolve to become intelligent.


The implications of the Cocconi and Morrison article took time to be absorbed by the mainstream scientific community, but eventually, in 1971, NASA got on board by setting up Project Cyclops at NASA. This was the first formalised, publicly-funded research project into searching for ET life.

The funding wasn’t enough for scientists at Cyclops to do a great deal, but even at its low level of funding, it soon came under political attack.

In 1978, Senator William Proxmire bestowed one of his infamous ‘golden fleece’ awards on the SETI programme, deriding it as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In 1981, a Proxmire amendment killed off SETI funding for the following year with Proxmire saying that it was a silly search for aliens unlikely to produce results.

In 1993, NASA got back into SETI work, this time with the High Resolution Microwave Survey Targeted Search programme. But, again, this project too came under political attack and lost is operational funding just one year after it began.

It wasn’t just politicians who were critical of SETI work, scientists were critical too, who supported the view outlined by the late nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.

Fermi, who had died in 1954, did not accept the view (held by many at SETI) that the Universe was teeming with life, based on its size, and number of planets near Stars.

Fermi said that if the SETI people were to be believed, and the Universe was teeming The Earth was 4.5 billion years old, Fermi had said, and there was no evidence of extra-terrestrial life visiting here in all that time.

He had asked the question if there is so much life out there, ‘where is everybody’. It was a simple, yet, devastating riposte to the Drake equation.

Fermi had come up with his idea in 1950, but many scientists still point to it.


Yet, Fermi was not alive when two things happened, both in the mid-1970s, which are the best pieces of evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

The first story concerns an experiment that took place when the Viking landers landed on Mars in 1976. Some readers will remember the amazing colour pictures of the surface of Mars shown on TV at the time.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 were NASA space probes sent to Mars for the sole purpose of determining whether life existed on the planet.

One of three experiments on board worked was set up to see if the soil contained microbes. If it did, the life forms in the Martian soil would ingest and metabolise the nutrients and release either radioactive carbon dioxide or methane gas which could be measured by a radiation detector on the space probe.

The minute the nutrients were mixed with the soil sample there was a huge reaction with something like 10,000 counts of radioactive molecules being produced. This was a huge spike because the radiation background on Mars was 50 or 60 counts.

The experiment was, thus, positive for life, but NASA did not announce it had found life because the other two experiments on board which were negative for life.

The other piece of ‘evidence’ that is put forward concerns what is called the ‘Wow signal’, which was received by the Big Ear Telescope on 15th August 1977. The telescope was scanning for signals coming in from potential ET intelligent beings.

This was a strong narrowband signal which appeared to come from the constellation Sagittarius, and was in the 1,420 MHz frequency band. It was precisely the sort of signal that the SETI researchers were looking for as being of ET origin.

Jerry Ehman, a volunteer astronomer working with SETI spotted this massive, powerful, narrow band Wo signal on the paper readouts he was going through while sitting at his kitchen table a few days later.

Ehman was stunned by the signal and was so taken back by it that he wrote the comment ‘Wow’ in the paper margins, hence the name Wow signal.

The signal lasted 72 seconds, then the Earth rotated, the signal dropped out of view of the telescope, and when the same region of sky came into view again, it was gone.

The signal helped inspire the film Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster.

Jerry Ehman went through every conceivable possible earthbound source for the signal, such as nearby military and civilian communications, but nothing could explain it. It remains the strongest candidate ever detected for an alien radio transmission.


The biggest thing to happen in recent years was the announcement in 2015 of $100 million privately funded search for ET life over 10 years, or about 10 million per year. This is big even compared to the annual funding for SETI of about 2 million dollars per annum. The Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message initiatives are supported by the Russian internet investor and physicist Yuri Milner and supporter by big names like Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees and Frank Drake.

This will survey the one million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth, as well as the 100 closest galaxies for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, in the form of artificial radio or optical transmissions that cannot be explained by natural phenomenon.

The advance of technology and our ability to scan more areas of our vast galaxy and Universe mean that people like Seth Shostak, an astronomer at SETI believes that we will have discovered ET life, intelligent or not, inside the next 20 years.

Get ready to meet ET!

The Pulsar Superstar – Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Listen to the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell broadcast on East Coast FM as part of the Irish Scientists series in December 2016

Science Spinning

Listen below to the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell as part of the Irish Scientists series which was broadcast on East Coast FM in December 2016

Jocelyn BB Pic Jocelyn Bell Burnell from Lurgan Co. Armagh discovered a new type of star, called pulsars in the 1960s

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pictured on the right, who grew up and was educated in Lurgan, discovered pulsars, a new family of incredibly compact tiny stars back in 1968. It was a discovery that many astronomers believed merited a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee agreed and a Prize was duly awarded for the discovery in 1974. The problem was the Prize went not to Jocelyn, but to her supervisor.

At the time she made the discovery, 67-year-old Jocelyn (who is still an active researcher) was a 24-year old post-graduate student. She was also a woman. Those things still mattered in science in the 1960s, and might have…

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