UMaine climate scientist passes at 50 in Antarctic snowmobile accident

Gordon Hamilton, 50, passed away Saturday, Oct. 22, in a snowmobile accident while conducting research on White Island in The Ross Archipelago in Antarctica. Hamilton had been conducting research in this region for many seasons prior to his death.

Hamilton was a professor for the School of Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine and a researcher with the Climate Change Institute. He was also a physical glaciologist interested in the dynamics of glaciers and ice sheets and how they interact with the climate system.

Some of Hamilton’s intricate research included dynamics and kinematics of rapid outlet glacier flow in Greenland, ice-ocean interactions in Greenland, subglacial floods and their effect on Antarctic outlet glacier flow and spatial and secular patterns in polar snow accumulation.

Hamilton hit a crevasse in an ice sheet on his snowmobile and died after falling 100 feet according to the National Science Foundation, for whom he was conducting research at the time of his death.

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

Dr. Paul Mayewski, the director of the Climate Change Institute at UMaine, was Hamilton’s fellow researcher and colleague. The two professionals met while Mayewski was leading a service expedition across Antarctica. They both joined on at UMaine in 2000.

Mayewski said sea level rise was Hamilton’s specialty and that he spoke to the media often as a spokesperson for climate change and sea level rise.

Mayewski described Hamilton as a professional who made those around him better.

“Whenever he [Hamilton] would walk in the room, it was clear that the room would lighten,” Mayewski said.

“He had a great sense of humor and was the type of man that made people feel good. He was a very acclaimed scientist and experienced field worker, which is why this is so tragic. The work we do is dangerous and there are accidents,” Mayewski added.

Mayewski also described Hamilton as a very popular professor that graduated many of his students into careers in his same field, acknowledging Hamilton’s students will carry on his legacy.

“He had many colleagues at the university and around the world, and was involved in many projects. The fact that he will no longer be able to contribute to those projects will leave a great hole, but his students in particular will carry on his legacy,” Mayewski said.

“They are well-trained and spent a lot of time in the field with him. They care about the same things that he cared about.”

UMaine President Susan Hunter echoed Mayewski’s sentiment.

“[Hamilton] leaves a legacy as an outstanding scientist, a caring mentor and well-known teacher to undergraduate and graduate students,” Hunter said in a statement. “He was an engaged, gregarious and beloved member of the UMaine and Orono communities that now mourn his loss. Our heart-felt thoughts and prayers go to his wife, Fiona, and their two children, Martin and Calum, and his friends and colleagues around the world.”

Another one of his colleagues, Dan Belknap, a professor for the School of Earth and Climate Sciences at UMaine said, “I always found him to be extremely capable, and with a sense of humor that always brightened up a room. We will miss him.”

Hamilton’s body has been recovered and will be returned to his family in the states. Peter West, a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation, said U.S. Antarctic Program personnel have begun an accident investigation into Hamilton’s death.

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