# ScienceScope

Science  22 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5807, pp. 1859

4. # South Pole Death Probed

More than 6 years after Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks died of methanol poisoning while wintering over at the South Pole, New Zealand authorities continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death. And the willingness of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other U.S. agencies to share information lies at the heart of the inquiry.

Last week, a coroner's inquest in Christchurch, New Zealand, heard 2 days of testimony about events shortly before Marks ingested a fatal dose of methanol, a common alcohol-based solvent that is also often used in homemade spirits. Marks was working on the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory located at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. NSF originally reported that the 32-year-old Marks “apparently died of natural causes” on 12 May 2000. The body was sent to Christchurch once flights from the pole resumed in the fall, and in November 2000, an autopsy revealed lethal levels of methanol. Christchurch coroner Richard McElrea then asked police to investigate.

At the inquest, Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald testified that the police department has been frustrated by what he characterized as a lack of cooperation from U.S. authorities in contacting the 49 people who were living at the South Pole station at the time of Marks's death. As a consequence, Wormald said that police have yet to determine whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate.

NSF spokesperson Jeffrey Nesbit says that New Zealand authorities asked NSF for help in 2002 and that the following year the agency sought clarification of the request. “There are complex jurisdictional and privacy issues involved,” says Nesbit, in explaining the delay. In 2005, NSF and its contractor, Raytheon Polar Services, distributed a questionnaire to those who had wintered over in 2000 and asked them to send their responses directly to New Zealand. “We didn't get any returns, so we assume that they went to the right addresses,” Nesbit added. Wormald testified that the police eventually received nine replies.

New Zealand officials say they hope the additional publicity will lead people to come forward with new information. McElrea declined comment on his plans. But the case remains open, and the inquest is expected to resume in February.