What Went Wrong: Climate Scientist Gordon Hamilton Dies in Antarctica

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A climber at the bottom of a crevasse in Ross Island, Antarctica. Getty Images

On Saturday, Antarctic researcher Gordon Hamilton was driving in a remote region of Ross Island — in the "shear zone" — when his snowmobile fell into a crevasse, killing him on impact after a 100-foot drop. His body has been recovered.

A prominent climate scientist with the U.S. Antarctic Program, Hamilton was on the continent studying the stability of ice shelves around the McMurdo Station research center. The region surrounding the station, known as the McMurdo shear zone, is the location where two prominent ice shelves meet.

At three miles wide and 125 miles long, the terrain of the shear zone is perilous and ever changing due to the constant movement of the ice shelves. A compacted snow road leads the way to the station — with the rest of the area characterized by a myriad of fractures, weakened ice layers, and shifting snow-covered crevasses. “In this area, crevasses are the first and foremost danger you will encounter,” says geographer Pablo Zenteno, who worked with the British Antarctic Survey for four years to research the relationships between ice shelves and glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula before guiding with Antarctica XXI Adventures. “Accidents with them can be unavoidable — cracks open and close. The whole crevasse system can change in a season. With climate change, there is so much going on now with the melting on the surface and under the water. The changes are dynamic.” While topo maps can save lives in such a volatile environment, the terrain changes too quickly to rely on them.

Zenteno clarifies that there are other ways besides using maps to mitigate the risk of experiencing an accident within the crevasse system — namely with using state-of-the-art technology and training. All researchers must undergo thorough, mandatory safety training before any work in the field. This training establishes knowledge and protocol for any circumstantial dangers that scientists may experience and focuses on survival techniques and crevasse rescue. Along with the mandatory training, many scientists flag their paths while in new territory with four-meter probes to test snow and ice for cracks.

Additionally, researchers also utilize radar systems that track and meter the terrain with real-time measurements to detect any potential cracks and crevassing. However, tractors — not Ski-Doos like the one Hamilton was riding — are equipped with the radar systems.

Despite the technology available to keep researchers safe, circumstantial accidents still arise. For example, you can have a seemingly stable area, but the borders of cracked ice are often completely hidden by snow, which is constantly blown around by strong Antarctic winds. “There can be a breach of snow covering a crevasse,” Zenteno says. “So it’s safe to walk that path twice, and then the bridge suddenly collapses on the third. It’s very tricky. That’s why these kinds of accidents happen.”

The circumstances of Hamilton's accident are still unclear, but the risks of going off-road to study the ice were part of the job. “You take risks for research,” Zenteno says. “That’s the exciting and scary part about Antarctica — there is so much that is unknown. Scientists are on the forefront of that.” 

According to a post on their Facebook page, the U.S. Antarctic Program has opened an accident investigation of Hamilton's death. Hamilton's colleagues are currently preparing to leave the field, according to a statement from the NSF Division of Polar Programs.