Leading UMaine researcher perishes in accident in Antarctica

Gordon Hamilton with an automated laser scanning system installed to monitor Helheim Glacier, in Southeast Greenland
Gordon Hamilton with an automated laser scanning system installed to monitor Helheim Glacier, in Southeast Greenland. —Credit: Adam LeWinter / US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory

Gordon Hamilton, a University of Maine professor in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences, and a researcher with the Climate Change Institute, died in a field accident Oct. 22 while conducting research in Antarctica. He was 50.

Hamilton, a physical glaciologist, was working on White Island in the Ross Archipelago in Antarctica, an area where he has conducted research for several seasons, when the snowmobile he was riding hit a crevasse. He was killed in the 100-foot fall, according to the National Science Foundation. Hamilton was conducting NSF-funded research at the time of the accident.

"The University of Maine has lost one of its leading scientists," says UMaine President Susan J. Hunter. "Gordon's glaciology research around the world – from Antarctica to Greenland – was second to none. He leaves a legacy as an outstanding scientist, and a caring mentor and well-known teacher to undergraduate and graduate students. 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."

Hamilton joined UMaine's Climate Change Institute in 2000 as an assistant research professor. Prior to coming to Maine, he was at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University and the Norwegian Polar Institute in Oslo.

Hamilton studied the behavior of modern ice sheets and their role in the climate system. His research focused on understanding ice sheet mass balance – how much mass is coming in and going out, and the processes responsible – and involved satellite remote sensing. His current research projects included ice-ocean interaction in Greenland and ice shelf stability in Antarctica.

Hamilton also taught UMaine undergraduate and graduate courses, and was involved in statewide STEM initiatives for grades 9-12.

This August 29, 2009 photo shows Gordon Hamilton conducting research on the Kangerlussuaq Glacier in southeast Greenland
This August 29, 2009 photo shows Gordon Hamilton conducting research on the Kangerlussuaq Glacier in southeast Greenland. Kangerlussuaq Glacier is the largest glacier on the east coast of the Greenland ice sheet. It flows into the head of the Kangerlussuaq Fjord, the second largest fjord in East Greenland. —Credit: Leigh Stearns

Video: Gordon Hamilton 40 Years of Climate Change Research

"Gordon was the quintessential scientist and educator," says Jeffrey Hecker, UMaine executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. "His research informed his teaching and his community outreach – from schoolchildren to lawmakers and the media. He knew the importance of hands-on learning, and often took students into the field on his research expeditions. Students appreciated his depth of knowledge as a pioneering researcher, his dedication to being involved in student success and his style as an approachable, effective educator. He touched – and changed – many lives. Our thoughts are with his students – past and present – his family, and his many friends and colleagues."

In a statement released Oct. 23, Climate Change Institute Director Paul Mayewski noted that the entire glaciology community held Hamilton in the absolute highest esteem.

"His experience and devotion to understanding glacier dynamics and their role in our evolving climate system, notably with respect to sea level rise, were Gordon's scientific passions," Mayewski said in the statement. "He led many polar expeditions in the course of his research, trained many graduate students, lectured far and wide, and was a well-known science spokesman in many media outlets."

"Those of us who shared time in the field with Gordon know how important he was not only as a fellow team member and scientist, but also how wonderful and how much fun it was to be with him. We send our deepest sympathy to his family and want them to know how much we appreciate the opportunity to have known him and how important his legacy is to our Institute and the scientific community," said Mayewski.

Editor's Notes:
Dr. Gordon Hamilton served on the U.S. Ice Core Working Group from 1998 to 2000.

The University of Maine's Climate Change Institute (CCI) has established an endowment award in memory of Gordon S. Hamilton. In the spirit of Gordon's unwavering support for and encouragement of his students, it will provide funds for graduate students in CCI to travel to conferences or conduct field work. If you'd like to contribute to this award, please do so at: https://goo.gl/e8qGcf.

Gordon's obituary is online.