A University of Maine professor who is world-renowned as a climate change scientist died in a snowmobile crash Saturday while inspecting ice in Antarctica.

The death of Gordon Hamilton, 50, of Orono stunned his Maine colleagues and friends and other climate change and cold-climate researchers around the globe.

“He was a highly successful glaciologist and also a delight to be with in the field,” said Paul Mayewski, director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, where Hamilton was a researcher.

University of Maine climate science researcher Gordon Hamilton spends time on the ice sheet in east Greenland in 2009.

University of Maine climate science researcher Gordon Hamilton spends time on the ice sheet in east Greenland in 2009.

Hamilton was working on White Island in the Ross Archipelago when his snowmobile fell 100 feet into a crevasse in the ice. He and his team, who were based at the U.S. McMurdo Station, were performing work they had done for some years, inspecting the roughly 30-mile track used by heavy transverse vehicles to haul supplies and equipment from the coast to McMurdo Station.

“There is only one place it needs to be inspected, fairly close to the starting point,” Mayewski said in a telephone interview Sunday.

He said the ice in that spot shifts and can create dangerous crevasses. Hamilton and his team, funded by the National Science Foundation, were in the midst of mapping the crevasses before bulldozers moved in to create bridges over them. The team was using radar and robots to look through the ice and identify the crevasses.

Hamilton’s team was camped in a heavily crevassed area known as the Shear Zone, about 25 miles south of McMurdo Station. The Shear Zone is a 3-mile-wide, 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 the area.

The weather was clear at the time of the accident, Mayewski said.

“His snowmobile went into one of these crevasses. They are very deep,” Mayewski said.

Hamilton’s body was recovered and was being flown to New Zealand, the jumping-off point for U.S. researchers bound for the Antarctic.

Hamilton’s team, including a University of Maine graduate student and several Dartmouth College researchers, were flown by helicopter from the accident site back to the U.S. station. Most of them were en route Sunday to New Zealand, a flight of 40 or more hours.

“They are pretty shaken up,” Mayewski said.

The National Science Foundation manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent.

“The University of Maine has lost one of its leading scientists,” UMaine President Susan J. Hunter said in a prepared 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.

“He was an engaged, gregarious and beloved member of the UMaine and Orono communities that now mourn his loss,” Hunter said. “Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go to his wife, Fiona, and their two children, Martin and Calum, and his friends and colleagues around the world.”

Born in Scotland, Hamilton graduated from the University of Aberdeen there and received a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in England.

He came to UMaine’s Climate Change Institute in 2000 as an assistant researcher after working at Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University and the Norwegian Polar Institute in Oslo.

Hamilton spent part of each winter in the Antarctic and each summer in Greenland. He studied the behavior of modern ice sheets and their role in the climate system and modulating global sea levels. His current research included ice and ocean interaction in Greenland and ice shelf stability in Antarctica.

He also taught undergraduate and graduate courses and was involved in high school science, technology, engineering and math education.

“He was highly successful in terms of his work and well supported by a variety of federal agencies and other organizations,” Mayewski said. “He worked with several graduate students who have been very successful. He was highly esteemed.”

Mayewski said Hamilton was also good-hearted, easygoing and friendly. He also had an operatic voice and at one point had to choose between a singing career or science.

“Why he chose science, I do not know. But he clearly loved cold weather,” Mayewski said.

“Gordon was the quintessential scientist and educator,” Jeffrey Hecker, UMaine executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, said in a prepared statement. “His research informed his teaching and his community outreach – from schoolchildren to lawmakers and the media. He touched and changed many lives. Our thoughts are with his students – past and present, his family and his many friends and colleagues.”

Hamilton’s colleagues in the Antarctic Program and at the National Science Foundation said his death would have an impact on the small community of people in the cold-climate research field.

“I am deeply saddened by the news of the tragic death of Dr. Hamilton. Our thoughts are with the family and entire community as we mourn this loss,” Dr. France Córdova, director of the science foundation, said in a prepared statement.

Kelly Faulkner, head of the division of polar programs at the foundation, wrote in a Facebook post that Hamilton will be missed.

“The U.S. Antarctic Program is a close-knit corps of researchers and support personnel who carry out the nation’s program of research in Antarctica, working at the frontiers of human knowledge, but also at the physical frontiers of human experience,” Faulkner wrote. “The death of one of our colleagues is a tragic reminder of the risks we all face – no matter how hard we work at mitigating those risks – in field research. Gordon will be missed by many, and our hearts go out to all whose lives he touched.”

The United States maintains three stations in the Antarctic that are manned by several hundred support staff. McMurdo is the largest. The research by several hundred scientists takes place between October and February, said Peter West, spokesman for the science foundation’s Polar Outreach Program.

The U.S. Antarctic Program is investigating the accident.

 


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