Prominent Scientist Gordon Hamilton Dies in Antarctica

Gordon Hamilton, a respected glaciologist, died recently while on field research in Antarctica after his snowmobile fell 100 feet into a crevasse. The 50-year-old associate research professor worked at the University of Maine where he studied the effects of climate change on the shrinking glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica.

Professor Gordon Hamilton (Source: University of Maine).

Dr. Hamilton had been conducting field research about 25 miles south of McMurdo Station, the largest of three U.S. research stations in Antarctica, located on the southern tip of Ross Island. He was driving his snowmobile in a remote area known as the McMurdo shear zone where two large ice shelves meet and crevasses are typically found.

Leigh Stearns, Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, who worked with Gordon Hamilton for over 17 years, including for 24 months of fieldwork, talked to GlacierHub about the risks facing researchers like Hamilton: “There are certainly dangers associated with doing fieldwork in remote places,” she said. “However, we spend so much time and effort thinking about these risks and trying to mitigate against them, that I think we’re often safer in the field than at home.”

According to Stearns, Gordon was experienced and extremely cautious doing fieldwork. “This trip to Antarctica was no exception. It should be noted that there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent the accident that killed him.”

Sunset at McMurdo Station in Antarctica (Source: Eli Duke/Flickr).

Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University, agreed: “I am keen to point out that the risks are not that great and accidents are actually quite rare.”

According to Kingslake, many observations vital for understanding ice sheets can only be made by moving around on the surface of the ice, even despite advances in satellite and airborne remote sensing.

“Ground-based polar fieldwork involves different risks than you face in normal life,” he said. “For example, extreme cold, light aircraft use, and crevassing. These can be exacerbated by remoteness, but usually the risks can be mitigated successfully. Only rarely do serious accidents happen.”

View from McMurdo Station in Antarctica (Source: Eli Duke/Flickr).

Dr. Hamilton set fear aside in Greenland and Antarctica frequently, including during a decades-long stretch when he went to Greenland two to three times a year for field work. He supplemented his research by using satellite remote sensing to track the shrinking of the ice sheets in both Greenland and Antarctica. 

According to an interview Hamilton gave last year, “No research had previously been conducted on the oceanic waters of a typical fjord” in Greenland. By going out into the field, despite known dangers, Dr. Hamilton discovered that water temperatures reached 4°C between 200 meters and 1000 meters below the surface, within 20 km of the edge of the ice sheet. Hamilton believed this was the best explanation for the abrupt changes observed in Greenland over the past 15 years. “They’ve all been caused by the ocean,” he said at the time. Although he knew the risks, as all glaciologists do, Hamilton lived his life with courage, in pursuit of a greater truth about our changing climate.

The death of Hamilton in Antarctica has since sent shock waves through the research community. On behalf of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs, Dr. Kelly K. Falkner released a statement about the community’s tragic loss. The statement reads: “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. 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.”

Dr. Stearns added her own thoughts about her research partner: “He was a fantastic mentor, colleague and friend. He was incredibly generous with his time and ideas and had great humility and humor.”

Professor Gordon Hamilton (Source: University of Maine).

Dr. Hamilton earned a Bachelor Science at the University of Aberdeen in geography in 1988 and a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge in geophysics in 1992. He also worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute and at the Byrd Polar Research Center, joining the University of Maine in 2000. His research interests included outlet glacier dynamics and kinematics, icebergs, ice-ocean interaction in Greenland, and ice shelf stability in Antarctica.

Although his death was unexpected, one thing remains certain: Hamilton died doing work that he loved. “I love my job,”  Hamilton said in 2013 in a video for the Climate Change Institute. “I can’t think of a better job or another job that I would rather be doing. As a scientist, it is incredibly exciting to be in a field that is evolving so rapidly.”

Tensions Flare Over Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park

First Nations in Canada have long gotten the short end of the stick in deals with federal agencies. Recently, inside Jasper National Park, things are tending toward more of the same, with indigenous people raising objections over a newly installed glass skywalk 918 feet above the Sunwapta valley.

Like Canada’s other early national parks, Jasper was formed through colonial territorialization, in which indigenous people were forced from their lands to make way for wilderness preservation. As a result, the government must still consult with indigenous communities that hold Aboriginal or treaty rights in the area, a process fraught with controversy, according to an article by Megan Youdelis, a researcher at York University. In Jasper National Park, interests of First Nations overlaps with that of Parks Canada, causing friction over the development of the Glacier Skywalk.

A couple taking a selfie on the Glacier Skywalk (Source: Cezary Kucharski/Flickr).

Jasper, located in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta province, is a few hours drive west of Edmonton, and is the second most visited park in Canada  with over two million visitors a year. Replete with glaciers and snow-capped mountain peaks, it is home to the Columbia Icefield, the largest ice field in the Canadian Rockies, as well as the Athabasca Glacier, the most-visited glacier in North America. First Nations are the descendants of people who immigrated to the area as far back as 9,000 years ago, after the big glaciers receded from the present-day park.

Parks Canada, founded in 1911, is in charge of all national parks in Canada, and approved the $21 million Glacier Skywalk, but many First Nations felt that they weren’t properly consulted, according to Youdelis. Youdelis found that park management traditionally marginalizes First Nations’ input in the decision-making process in parks across Canada, including in Jasper.

“It’s not right that certain First Nations enjoy fairly advanced comanagement arrangements with the state (such as in Gwaii Haanas, for example), while the First Nations living in Treaty areas are only ‘consulted’ in a very cursory manner,” said Youdelis in an interview with GlacierHub. “I think this is a major problem for the older, southern parks in Canada, like Jasper, where Indigenous territories continue to be appropriated so that corporations and the state benefit economically.”

The 2011 Consultation and Aboriginal Engagement Report gives an account of the stakeholder meetings and open houses in which First Nations were consulted about the skywalk, but the report does not give any indication of which tribes were consulted, what issues were raised and what was done to address these issues. Parks Canada did not respond to requests to comment.

According to a public forum put forth by Parks Canada, “Subsequent site visits with Elders from communities that expressed an interest in the project either confirmed that there were no concerns with the project or that no follow-up was required.” Some First Nations members refute this claim and have expressed that Parks Canada didn’t consult them properly by using only a forum meeting instead of a formal consultation with First Nations. Forum meetings are considered inadequate by some members of First Nations because not all Indigenous people can attend because of either the time or location. Furthermore, if Indigenous people don’t speak up during the meeting, their opinions simply aren’t heard.

Jasper National Park (Source: Bernard Spragg. NZ/ flickr)
Jasper National Park (Source: Bernard Spragg. NZ/ flickr)

One member from the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation told Megan Youdelis, “We just felt it was very inappropriate that the Forum be used for consultation.” Another member of the Stoney Nakoda Nation said, “They did a brief presentation on what they wanted to do with the Glacier Skywalk and they asked for some feedback. The first thing I remember one of the members saying was, ‘This meeting is not a consultation. It’s not regarded as a consultation.’ What Jasper likes to do is have one or two meetings and say it’s a consultation.”

Others interviewed by Youdelis felt that the decision to go ahead with the skywalk was already made by the time they were consulted, even if they had rights to lands that overlapped with Park boundaries. A member of Confederation of Treaty Six Nations said, “We went in there frustrated, and we left even more frustrated. It’s really sad when you know that all that’s happening is they’re going to ask us for the sake of asking. Just so they can give the appearance of ‘Yeah, we asked them.’”

However, not all feedback from Indigenous people was negative: respondents of the Alexis Sioux Nakota Nation and Sucker Creek First Nation had a better experience with regards to the Skywalk and received one on one meetings, even negotiating terms with Parks Canada. A member of the Alexis Sioux Nakota Nation told Youdelis, “I guess if we didn’t seek them out that’s probably what would have happened with us as well, them coming to the Forum and doing a presentation. That’s the point where you start going after things… If you’re proactive with consultation, you can pounce on that [opportunity] and get your own wheels rolling.”

Road to Jasper National Park (Source: Pascal / flickr).

Other concerns with the new Glacier Skywalk stem from the fact that no Indigenous people work there, according to Youdelis.  While Indigenous people may be told about employment and economic opportunities from new projects, they are rarely followed up on. Near Maligne Lake in Jasper, there have been discussions about First Nations selling their crafts, but many see this only as a way for Parks Canada to curry favor with First Nations tribes. This may lead to a system where First Nations are incentivized to accept deals put forth, while not having any say on the park’s authority to build projects on their land.

“The community has always questioned why there are not more opportunities for Aboriginal groups among the private sector in the park,” said a member of the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation to Youdelis. “I know there has been discussions along these lines of tourism opportunities, visitor centers and partnerships, but nothing has ever really come to fruition.”

Though Parks Canada has taken steps to redress injustices in Jasper, like hosting annual Aboriginal Days where First Nations perform songs and dances, sell crafts, and showcase their culture, severe inequities remain. Much work still needs to be done across Canada to bridge the gap between Indigenous communities and park management, so that all Indigenous people feel that they have been properly consulted in park decisions.

As Youdelis emphasized to GlacierHub, “The unquestioned authority of Parks Canada to make any and all land use decisions in these territories is entirely colonial, and I think this issue with ‘consultation’ across Canada needs to be addressed.”

Moving forward, one thing is certain, First Nations will not forget about the Glacier Skywalk.