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.”

For Jill Pelto, Science Intersects With Art

Jill Pelto aspires to use art, especially screen printing, to communicate climate change, rising sea levels, and the state of threatened species to the world. She has a background in both art and science— she graduated from the University of Maine in 2015 with a double major in Studio Art and Earth Science— and says on her website that ”art is a uniquely articulate lens: through it I can address environmental concerns to raise awareness and inspire people to take action.”

Jill Pelto: Landscape of Change
Jill Pelto: Landscape of Change


Pelto witnessed glacier retreat first-hand as a teenager, and since then images of glaciers have left her with a strong impression. She’s visited glaciers on many occasions. She has accompanied her dad, a glaciologist, to the North Cascade Glaciers of Washington state, and has assisted with research conducted on mountain glaciers in that state. Pelto’s recent work was featured at the University of Maine Art Department’s senior studio art exhibit, “The Ghosts of Carnegie Hall.” Now she is a graduate student at the University of Maine, studying in the Earth Science Program. She spoke to GlacierHub by email. 

Jill Pelto: Decrease in Glaciers
Jill Pelto: Decrease in Glaciers

GlacierHub: Are there any interesting stories or particular feelings you would like to share from you previous visits to glaciers?

Jill Pelto: Working in the field is perhaps my favorite part about working as an Earth Scientist; these trips also lead to a lot of interesting stories. I think it’s very important to note the rate of change that is occurring on Earth. We hear a lot of people state that change in the climate are natural and so on, yet they do not realize that unprecedented rate that has led us to call this a global warming. I think it is important that more people understood why the current changes are not like any in the past, and that they are caused by human influence. I have worked with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project on a group of glaciers in Washington for the past seven years. This is not a long period of time, yet over this interval I have seen huge changes to the glaciers and ecosystems, including the creations of a new meltwater lake.

This past field season, August 2015, I was stunned and saddened by the effects of the drought: almost no snow on the glaciers, huge ice volume loss and retreat, reservoirs and streams depleted, a new lake beneath Columbia Glacier, and forest fire smoke engulfing the sky. When I returned from the field I was inspired to create a series that used data to show people: look, this is happening! It is going to be difficult to change our relationship with the environment, but it is essential that we do so now! I hope that my artwork will communicate both this sense of loss that is occurring, yet also inspire hope and action.

Jill Pelto: Salmon Population
Jill Pelto: Salmon Population


GH: What component do you consider the most important when communicating science to public?

JP: I am really still figuring out how best to share science to a broad audience, but I have always thought artwork was an excellent form of communication. I think this is because the aesthetic visual quality often evokes an emotional reaction. I am trying to use my artwork to share with people the emotions I feel about environmental issues: worry and anger, but also hope and the belief that we can change our relationship with nature for the better. Using research and data in my art has helped communicate well because it informing people about a topic and showing a trend, yet it does not rely on the graph by itself to tell a story. Right now I think the key to communicating science to the public may lie in combining the intellectual to the emotional. One without the other is a much less effective way to bring about change. You need the intellectual so that people know what is happening, but without the emotional they may not pay attention, or may not care enough. The emotional is key for getting people to care, yet without the information they would not learn about why the topic is important, or how and why they can make a difference.


GH: Can you tell us a bit about screen printing?

JP: Screenprinting gives me the unique ability to create an edition of original artworks that are handmade. The whole process is quite complex, yet I am able to turn one work of art into a series that varies in color palette. I use the photoemulsion process for my series and work in the University of Maine print shop run by Susan Groce. I first create a watercolor that will serve as my image. I then scan it and use Photoshop to separate it into its four color layers: Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, and Black (CYMK). These are printed on four separate acetate positives. I can then use a special emulsion and the Print Shop’s UV Light Exposure Unit to expose my images to the screen. The emulsion washes out wherever my image is, allowing the ink to transfer through the screen and onto my paper in this those areas; it is extremely precise.  

Jill Pelto: Habitat Degradation
Jill Pelto: Habitat Degradation

GH: How do scientific research and data motivate your artwork?

JP: For each piece of artwork I research the topic that I wish to communicate. My piece Habitat Degradation: Ocean Acidification, for example, is inspired in particular from two sources that I will share below. The watercolor contains ocean pH data from 1998 to 2012. I wanted to depict the decrease in pH, which is due to atmospheric carbon dissolving into the ocean and creating carbonic acid; this has harmful effects on all marine life. I wanted to include this intellectual content but also portray the emotional response I had when I read that studies on clownfish show that more acidic water alters how their brains’ process information. This affects their ability to avoid predators by detecting noises and find their way home. Ocean water has a lower pH than a fish’s cells, so they take in carbonic acid in order to be in harmony with their environment. Even a small drop in pH requires fish to expend much more energy in order to equilibrate, and this energy is taken from other necessary functions. The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion, separated from the anemone in which they live. The oceans may be vast, but if pH drops globally, there is literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the water.

Pelto’s artwork covers more than just glaciers. Explore more of it here.