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.”

Photo Friday: The Glaciers of Antarctica

Antarctica, the world’s southernmost continent, is a hostile realm of ice and snow, fictionalized in our popular culture by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and further romanticized by real-world scientific explorers eager to lay claim to the region.

Humans who venture to the southernmost pole do so by way of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they may visit Port Lockroy, site of a former British research station, or take in by cruise the vast terrain and wildlife of the region. Multiple countries also operate scientific camps and research programs in more remote locales of Antarctica where science teams study awe-inspiring glaciers and ice sheets throughout the year.

The largest ice sheet in the world, Antarctica is composed of around 98% continental ice and 2% barren rock. The ancient ice is incredibly thick, although it has been thinning due to the effects of climate change.

Cotton Glacier flows eastward between Sperm Bluff and Queer Mountain in Victoria Land (Source: Kelly Speelman/National Science Foundation).
Cotton Glacier in Victoria Land (Source: Kelly Speelman/National Science Foundation).

Several nations have made overlapping claims to the Antarctic continent. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in Washington in 1959, attempts to maintain peace, by neither denying or providing recognition to these territorial claims. Today, a total of 53 countries have signed the treaty, including Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom, countries that have all made specific claims in the region. The United States and Russia, meanwhile, have maintained a “basis of claim” in the region. Scientists of these nations conduct field research from Antarctica bases to gather greater knowledge about climatic changes affecting the larger world.

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).
The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

Studying glaciers in Antarctica is of great impact due to the influence of melting glaciers on global sea levels. In addition, Antarctica plays a primary role in the world’s climate. According to Antarcticglaciers.org, “Cold water is formed in Antarctica. Because freshwater ice at the surface freezes onto icebergs, this water is not only cold, it is salty. This cold, dense, salty water sinks to the sea floor, and drives the global ocean currents, being replaced with warmer surface waters from the equatorial regions.”

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation)
The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

Ice sheets in Antarctica are fragile and a number have recently collapsed, causing glacial thinning and threatening a rise in sea levels. Some scientists are concerned that the collapsing ice sheets may not be just a natural occurrence but one more closely linked to a warming planet.

A Tucker tractor has been drifted over at Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).
A Tucker tractor has been drifted over at Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The Pine Island Glacier is one of the “fastest receding glaciers in the Antarctic” and a major contributor to our rising sea levels, according to the U.S. Antarctic Program. Scientists have observed an ice shelf on the Pine Island Glacier that is rapidly thinning, pushing the glacier toward the sea.

A black and white aerial view of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf shows its heavily crevassed surface (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation)
A black and white aerial view of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf shows its heavily crevassed surface (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

A team of scientists constructed a field camp in 2012-2013 to study the impacts of climate change on the glacier, also known as PIG.

The first tent erected at the main field camp on Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).
The first tent erected at the main field camp on Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The PIG field camp staff learned to contend with adverse weather conditions in the area and events like windstorms, a common occurrence in this remote and hostile part of the world.

Pine Island Glacier field camp staff attempt to excavate a mountain tent that collapsed during a wind storm (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).
Pine Island Glacier field camp staff attempt to excavate a mountain tent that collapsed during a wind storm (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

Helicopters provide support to field projects such as the one conducted in 2012-2013 at the Pine Island Glacier.

(Source: August Allen/ National Science Foundation).
A helicopter is unloaded from an LC-130 at the Pine Island Glacier field project (Source: August Allen/ National Science Foundation).

Elsewhere in Antarctica is the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free area in the region—approximately 15,000-square-kilometers— where science teams perform research projects on glaciers, lakes, and soils, funded by the National Science Foundation. The area is an extreme landscape, but it can also be a useful environment for scientists hoping to study the impacts of climate change.

A glacier pool in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Source: Peter Rejcek.
A glacier pool in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Source: Peter Rejcek/National Science Foundation).

In Antarctica, teams of scientists can extract old ice flowing from the ends of glaciers in large quantities rather than by drilling directly into the ancient ice sheet. Around 350 kilograms of ice is then melted into a vacuum-sealed container to capture around 35 liters of ancient air. The ancient air was preserved by the ice for thousands of years. Scientists hope to research the ancient air and examine the impact of methane gas on past climate change, according to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Scientist Vasilii Petrenko loads an ice melter at Taylor Glacier (Source: Vasilii Petrenko/National Science Foundation).
Scientist Vasilii Petrenko loads an ice melter at Taylor Glacier (Source: Vasilii Petrenko/National Science Foundation).

Could Glaciology Use a Dose of Feminism?

A new study in Progress in Human Geography argues that the viewpoints of women and indigenous people are not being represented in glaciology and that a feminist perspective is needed to counterbalance this deficit.

Does feminist glaciology provide just a splash of media attention, or is this something the field really needs? (Photo:Tyler Corder/Flickr)
Does feminist glaciology just provide a splash of media attention, or is this something the field needs? (Photo:Tyler Corder/Flickr)

The authors—Mark Carey, M Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing of the University of Oregon—are calling for a reimagining of what constitutes appropriate and usable knowledge in the natural sciences, especially glaciology. They argue that valuable perspectives are left out of glaciology because its history is steeped in military operations, as well as the fact that there is a current interest in risky fieldwork. The inclusion of marginalized viewpoints will allow for a more complete representation of glaciers, science, and climate change, they assert.

The study has garnered a great deal of attention for its provocative premise. Comments, blog posts, and articles have piled up since the study was published in January. Articles have mockingly called glaciers sexist or complained that the federal government wasted taxpayer dollars funding this study.

This research was funded by a grant awarded to Mark Carey by the National Science Foundation, who addressed criticism with a response that pointed out that only a small fraction of the grant went to this study.

The researchers found, after a thorough literature review, that the exclusion of women and indigenous people’s knowledge comes, in part, from a tradition of glaciers and the military. For example, during the Cold War, the United States viewed the Arctic as an area of strategic concern and began to prepare for military operations in the region.

The importance of learning how to survive and maneuver in those harsh Arctic areas provided “institutional resources, growth, standing, and credibility,” for glaciology, the authors argue. Thus, with the militarized history, the authors say that glaciology was influenced by colonialism, domination, and Western ideals that often ignore women and indigenous peoples. This history may have affected what is currently considered respected forms of glaciology.

USS Skate surfacing in the Arctic in 1959. The authors argue that the military (especially during the Cold War) had a large role in creating present-day glaciology. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)
USS Skate surfacing in the Arctic in 1959. The authors argue that the military (especially during the Cold War) had a large role in creating present-day glaciology. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

The authors say that though there are various ways to study glaciers (like modeling, experiments, and satellites), the one that garners the most attention— and therefore funding and validity— is traditionally-masculine fieldwork.

Glaciologist Garry Clarke told GlacierHub in an email that he finds this type of “[a]dventure ‘Rambo’ glaciology,” along with other points brought forth in the study, “embarrassing to most glacier scientists.” Even so, researchers working within harsh glacial conditions are often considered heroes. The authors argue that when prominent publications feature stories that focus more on the adventure, rather than the science, of glaciology, they perpetuate the validation of risk.

Lead author Mark Carey said their aim was to provide a broad perspective on the field, rather than critique individuals or their activities.

“Note that we are talking about how broader sociocultural values influence the reception and perception of science, not about individual scientists and whether their science is valuable or solid, which is not the point,” Carey said in an interview with Science.

The authors concluded that risk-taking fieldwork in the sciences not only often excludes women, but also those who cannot afford to become mountaineers. By only validating physically-demanding activities by affluent researchers, glaciology loses key knowledge that could advance the field.

Glaciologist Elisabeth Isaksson of the Norwegian Polar Institute told GlacierHub in an email that she may have “rolled her eyes” at this paper a few years ago, but upon further reflection and discussions with her peers she has come to realize the importance of a study like this one.

“Being a somewhat older female glaciologist I do think it is time to put the limelight on many of these aspects so I welcome a paper like this! However, some of the aspects brought up in the paper might be unknown for the younger generations who has been brought up in a more gender equal scientific world…”

Villagers crossing a glacier. The authors argue that local knowledge is not utilized enough in glaciology.(Photo:Sajith T S/Flickr)
Villagers crossing a glacier. The authors argue that local knowledge is not utilized enough in glaciology.(Photo: Sajith T S/Flickr)

The authors were also concerned with the lack of non-scientific perspectives. They found that while women were the members of indigenous societies who managed water usage, irrigation, and otherwise interacted intimately with glaciers, their knowledge has not been seen as critical or useful to traditional glaciologists.

Not only do women hold key knowledge, they are also disproportionately affected by climate change and glacier risks.

“Women might be less able to migrate out of a flood zone during a sudden glacier melt. In Peru, we know that men migrate to the cities for jobs, whereas women are more confined to their homes and child rearing,”  Carey said in a press release for the study.

Because these women often do not read or write, the authors argue that researchers should utilize techniques such as “audio-visual storytelling” in glacier communities to showcase cultural perspectives. Similarly, the authors suggest that art, such as that by Zaria Forman, is a way to “re-position and re-envision glaciers as greater than their usual status as passive research subjects…”

Another antidote the authors mention is to simply include more women in fieldwork. The study points to a program in Alaska, Girls on Ice, which teaches girls mountaineering skills. Though the authors argues that this program still expects girls to conform to traditionally-masculine fieldwork, they see this approach as crucial.

The girls of Girls on Ice ascending Gulkana Glacier (Photo :Alaska Climate Science Center)
The girls of Girls on Ice ascending Gulkana Glacier. (Photo: Alaska Climate Science Center)

The authors do acknowledge the current increase in female participation in fieldwork, but argue that it still fails to adequately address cultural and other non-scientific perspectives.

This study does not aim to eliminate traditional glaciology, but rather to have glaciologists incorporate other perspectives to insure a deeper understanding of glaciers, as well as climate change, which is made slightly more tangible through the study of glaciers.

Carey told Science that “[their] goal was to ask questions about the role of gender in science and knowledge—to start a conversation, not conclude the discussion.”