ORONO, Maine — Gordon Hamilton, a University of Maine professor and a researcher with the Climate Change Institute, died Saturday in a snowmobile crash while conducting research in Antarctica. He was 50.
Hamilton, a physical glaciologist, was working on White Island in the Ross Archipelago in Antarctica, an area where he has conducted research for several seasons, when the snowmobile he was riding hit a crevasse. He died after falling 100 feet, according to a statement from the National Science Foundation.
Hamilton, a resident of Orono, was conducting research funded by the foundation at the time of the accident, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent through its Antarctic Program.
Hamilton’s body has been recovered and will be returned to his family in Maine. U.S. Antarctic Program personnel have begun an accident investigation, National Science Foundation spokesman Peter West said Sunday.
“He was just a delightful person. He was super friendly and he could always be counted on to have a good sense of humor, even in sometimes stressful situations,” Climate Change Institute Director Paul Mayewski said Sunday in a telephone interview.
Mayewski had been a colleague of Hamilton since the late 1990s, when they both started at UMaine. He said that Hamilton’s research, for which he received support from many national organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, NASA and others, made him a “valued member” at the Climate Change Institute.
“He was very highly experienced. He focused primarily on understanding how fast glaciers are changing and in particular, the fact that obviously as glaciers deteriorate, sea level rises,” Mayewski said.
Hamilton joined the Climate Change Institute in 2000 as an assistant research professor. Before coming to Maine, he was at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University and the Norwegian Polar Institute in Oslo, Norway. He earned his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1992.
Hamilton studied the behavior of modern ice sheets and their role in the climate system. His research focused on understanding ice sheet mass balance — how much mass is coming in and going out, and the processes responsible — and involved satellite remote sensing. His current research projects included ice-ocean interaction in Greenland and ice shelf stability in Antarctica.
Hamilton also taught UMaine undergraduate and graduate courses, and he was involved in statewide initiatives to bring STEM education to children in grades 9-12.
“The University of Maine has lost one of its leading scientists,” UMaine President Susan Hunter said in a statement Sunday. “Gordon’s glaciology research around the world — from Antarctica to Greenland — was second to none. He leaves a legacy as an outstanding scientist, and a caring mentor and well-known teacher to undergraduate and graduate students.”
“Gordon was the quintessential scientist and educator,” Jeffrey Hecker, UMaine executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, said in a statement. “His research informed his teaching and his community outreach — from schoolchildren to lawmakers and the media. He knew the importance of hands-on learning and often took students into the field on his research expeditions.”
Hamilton’s death also was being felt among his colleagues and friends at the national level.
“He was a gifted researcher and science communicator and a very talented field scientist. He also cared deeply about students and educating and training the next generation and was a mentor to many early career scientists, including several women,” Julie Palais, glaciology program manager in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs, said in an emailed statement. “My condolences go out to his family and friends and all who knew him.”
At the time of accident, Hamilton’s team was camped in a heavily crevassed area known as the Shear Zone, approximately 25 miles south of McMurdo Station, the largest of the three U.S. research stations in Antarctica, West, the spokesman, said.
The McMurdo Shear Zone is a 3-mile mile wide and more than 125-mile-long swath of intensely crevassed ice where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the McMurdo Ice Shelf. The ice is up to 650 feet thick in this area, West said.
Hamilton and members of his team had received crevasse and glacial safety training before going into the area. In addition, mountaineers familiar and experienced with the Shear Zone, were embedded with the researchers.
Researchers at the time were working together to identify and remediate crevasses that had appeared in the past year.
Crevasses had been identified and filled earlier in the week and work on a newly identified crevasse was beginning at the time of the accident.
West said that research-related deaths are a “rarity,” but he pointed out that working in the Antarctic region can be a “risky endeavor.”
“I spent several months with him in the field and he was always a delight to have involved,” Mayewski said. “It’s hard work. It’s very cold. Just even getting to and from these places is a lot of work and once you’re there, you’re in the field for weeks to months and it’s pretty much seven days a week.”
According to UMaine spokesman Margaret Nagle, this was the first employee death since 2002, when William O’Coin, who worked at the UMaine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, died from asphyxiation while saving the life of an area teenager who had become overcome by fumes while cleaning out a vertical concrete tank used to filter water.
Hamilton is survived by his wife, Fiona, and their two children, Martin and Calum.