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.”

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Would you SCUBA dive under Antarctica?

The Antarctic Dive Guide by Lisa Eareckson Kelley tells you everything you need to know about visiting the 7th continent from an underwater perspective.

An image of an Antarctic SCUBA diver going through the ice in the first modern SCUBA suit.
The first modern  SCUBA diver in the McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, circa 1960. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

According to the book, diving under ice first started over 100 years ago when divers still used heavy suits and brass helmets to stay dry, while getting their oxygen from ships on the surface. Today, divers use lightweight flexible suits and SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) gear that allows them to do much more under the water, all while deployinh modern technology to stay in communication with the surface and document what they find via underwater cameras and hydrophones.

Though Antarctica may seem like a barren place, cold water upwelling under the icecreates some of the most nutrient-rich waters in the world’s oceans. These conditions breed beautiful creatures of all shapes and sizes that an adventurous diver can get up close and personal with. Though nutrient-rich, the water is very cold, and most animals that have adapted to survive in the harsh conditions are smaller than their lower-latitude cousins. Nonetheless, close encounters between Antarctic divers, surface tourists and seals, penguins and whales are not uncommon.

An image of an Antarctic SCUBA diver with a large camera in the face of a large leopard seal under water.
A SCUBA diver filming a leopard seal in Antarctica. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

Kelley’ s dive guide lays out all your options for getting to the 7th continent, whether by cruise ship or private charter, and all the safety and regulatory guidelines to keep in mind if you are planing on going under the surface. The book goes over the best places to dive off the coasts of Antarctica.

Tourists and experienced adventurous alike can get to Antarctica for anywhere from $8,000-$30,000 or more depending on the type of trip. According to Kelly, approximately 35,000 people visit the island each year. The cost is mostly determined by the size of the ship one takes. Larger cruise ships where you would spend all your time on the boat cost the least, while smaller expedition ships with only a couple hundred people, where you would spend much more time on small inflatable boats commonly referred by the proprietary eponym “Zodiacs,” exploring the actual Antarctic landmass, cost more. Privately chartered ships that are often partially wind driven will offer the most flexibility and time ashore, these types of ships will run the most expensive.

Image of several dozen small starfish on a reef underwater in Antarctica.
Sea Stars in Antarctic waters, photographed by an Antarctic SCUBA diver. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

Diving under the water requires more experience than your average tourist on holiday. Kelly recommends that only very competent and experienced SCUBA divers attempt the cold waters and high-stakes environment. Everything is more difficult in the cold, you risk frost bite on exposed skin, you grind your teeth on your respirator, batteries for dive computers die faster, and valves and regulators are more prone to failure from the below-freezing temperatures.

Knowledge on self rescue is a must, as is the ability to breath through a freely flowing regulator, which is apparently one of the most common problems faced in the frigid water. A freely flowing regulator is a condition where the compressed air you breath is no longer decompressed to surface pressure, making it harder to breath easily.

Image of an Antarctic SCUBA diver's hand holding a red sea spider with long curled legs underwater.
Antarctic SCUBA diver holding a sea spider. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

Skills like these are essential to a safe trip, as is bringing extra gear, including a dry suit, warm layers, and doubles of all your valves, gaskets etc… Unlike diving on the mainland or tourist islands, there are no dive shops to run into if you need a replacement part in the Antarctic seas.

Lastly, Kelly recommends making sure you have medical or trip insurance that specifically covers medevac from anywhere in the world, and covers high risk activities like SCUBA diving, which many polices explicitly exclude. If you need rescuing, medevac could cost more than six figures, and take over 48 hours, so it’s best to be prepared before embarking on the trip.

Image of a long jellyfish underwater with pink internal organs visible through its clear skin.
Antarctic Jellyfish curtsey of Princeton Press

Also important to keep in mind are leopard seal attacks, which though highly uncommon, have become more of a concern in recent years, with one reported death in 2004. Kelly recommends at least one diver carry a Leopard stick while in the water. These PVC or aluminum poles are used to ward off any potentially aggressive Leopard Seals.

In spite of the risks, the waters under the Antarctic seas offer incredibly novel and beautiful experiences that most people could never imagine. In many cases, the waters near Antarctic outflow glaciers, especially off the Antarctic Peninsula, and South Georgia Island, provide the best environments for Antarctic SCUBA diving. Besides whales, seals and penguins, lucky divers will get to see a great variety of underwater flora and fauna, including beautiful  worms, sponges, corals, jellies and kelp.

Surprisingly, while the world above the water in Antarctica is often shades of white and gray, and everything seems still, under the surface there is an amazingly colorful and dynamic ecosystem.

Take our survey and tell us if Antarctic SCUBA diving is something you’d want to try!

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